County man remembers his role in March on Washington

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” – excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.

Ray Forstrom was in the sea of people Martin Luther King Jr. saw as he gave his “I have a dream” speech from the steps on the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Forstrom, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Youngsville, was in his early 30s and had been ordained for just eight years in 1963 Members of his integrated church from the middle class, south side of Chicago had boarded a train and travelled through the night singing church hymns and freedom songs like “My eyes have seen the glory” and “Swing low sweet chariot”.

“Both going and coming on the train, people would be singing. There was a lot of singing, more hymns than anything else,” he said on Tuesday as he recalled attending the march in Washington.

Forstrom, members of his church and churches from the surrounding area walked from a train station to the National Mall. There were speeches throughout the day, and Forstrom said he remembers hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Peter, Paul and Mary perform over a very clear sound system, even as far back as they were.

“It was interesting, everybody was having a good time,” said Forstrom. “There was just people all over the place. They invited anybody who wanted to go, a bunch of us did.”

King took the podium later in the day and gave the “I have a dream” speech, his most famous speech.

“They were responding real well, they’d cheer, applaud,” he said. “Well, he was quite a speaker anyway. Very good.”

Later Forstrom met King in Chicago with a group of ministers at the University of Chicago.

“He spoke to us,” he said. “A bunch of preachers, you know, he was talking about the role, the word of God and how we should be proclaiming the word and sometimes in a proclamation you might come across times when you have to stand up for the word. And I say he was a theologian talking to theologian, because he could talk to any group, you know, and meet their needs or expectations. He was that kind of speaker.”

“It was interesting and it was something to be a part of,” he said. “Everybody was just there to march and let people know what they thought. That’s what they did.”

When they returned home they gave reports to the church members and people in the community who could not make the trip. There was intense interest both before and after the march.

“They wanted to know what went on,” he said.

Forstrom was quoted in a local newspaper about the march and afterward, he said, he “got some hate mail” from people who were not happy he had participated in the march.

During the march people carried signs that read “Jobs now for all” a message Forstrom said reverberates to this day.

Has the country made progress in the past 50 years?

“With somethings” but “the way things are going we’re going backwards instead of going forward. We were going forward for a while then all of a sudden people aren’t thinking of people as people but as enemies,” said Forstrom. “People don’t think.”