'Dream' Speech Resounds Locally ; for 4 Current Buffalonians Who Witnessed History, This Day Is One of Reflection on How Far We Still Have to Go

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'Dream' speech resounds locally for 4 Buffalonians

One was just 14 years old, a Harlem teen overwhelmed more by the throngs of police than by an orator's silver-tongued message 50 years ago today in Washington, D.C.

Another was an NAACP leader from Boston University who marveled at the sight of some 250,000 people, black and white, all dedicated to stamping out racism in America.

Two others were young brides. One remembered pulling her legs from the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial and standing in deference to the prophetlike leader who delivered the moving speech still quoted half a century later.

The other recalled wearing her best church clothes and being overcome by the sights and sounds from her front-row position.

They were all there - Marilyn A. Hochfield, Tommie E. Blunt, Lesley Haynes and Samuel A. Herbert - four current Buffalonians who attended the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

Fifty years later, they all have somewhat different perspectives on the event that shaped a nation - and them as individuals. They've worn multiple hats, as social workers, missionaries, pacifists, lawyers, civil rights activists and grass-roots political activists.

"The value of the 'I Have a Dream' speech came much later, for me, anyway," said Blunt, 74, of North Buffalo.

King's speech struck the four differently. They seemed more moved by his comment that people should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Lost sometimes in the half-century prism of that day were the other speakers, Mahalia Jackson singing, the salt-and-pepper composition of the crowd and, at the end, the tens of thousands of people holding hands, praying and singing "We Shall Overcome."

"I obviously think it's a great speech," Blunt said. "But everybody talks about the speech to the detriment about what went on in the march. Martin Luther King Jr. was great. But I think it's a mistake to leave other people out. Without them, there would have been no march."

Since then, there has been so much progress, with the election and re-election of the nation's first black president, along with the strides that African-Americans have made throughout society.

At the same time, these activists cited the frequent racist tones found in anonymous website comments, the continuing challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the disparity in the justice system.

"A lot of things have changed, but not enough," Haynes said. "You think things are getting better, then you wonder how far we've come. There's still a tremendous amount of prejudice and racism."

These four people, all in their 60s or 70s now, may have trouble remembering all the details from that one-day march. But they recall exactly how they felt on the day history was made:

Samuel Herbert

Herbert was only 14 and had just started walking after a bout with polio. His most vivid memory of the historic march was being overwhelmed by the vast number of people, the huge police presence and all the police dogs.

When King began speaking, Herbert's father, a Harlem preacher, told him and his brothers to keep quiet and listen.

It wasn't until the ride back home that Herbert asked his father what King had meant by talking about a person's character rather than skin color.

"My dad explained it to me, and he used the term 'Negro.' He said there are some mean white people who don't like Negroes because of the color of their skin," remembered Herbert, now a Buffalo community activist. "He said judge a person by how they treat you."

Herbert returned home to 126th Street in Harlem, where he hadn't felt that hatred. It was a mixed immigrant neighborhood, where blacks, Germans, Irish, Italians and Puerto Ricans all got along. But the teen heard older black men discussing the issue.

Now it all started to make sense for Herbert, what King meant in talking about character, not skin color. …