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This is one of the rarest and most patriotic surviving items from the Civil Rights era.  This paper pennant was printed for, and carried in, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, known at the time as the Freedom Parade. 

In the pennant's canton, surrounded by 42 stars, is the immortal rallying cry of the Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome", the only use of this phrase that I've ever witnessed on any form of the American flag.  The phrase derives from the song "We Shall Overcome", which itself derives from the gospel song "I'll Overcome Someday". On the day of the march, Joan Baez sang the song "We Shall Overcome" to over 300,000 people in attendance at the Lincoln Memorial.  It was on this day, too, that Dr. Martin Luther King delivered one of the most important speeches in American history, which would galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and immortalized Dr. King's historic words.  This pennant was carried by Ms. Theresa Gehring.  After acquiring the pennant, I was privileged enough to receive the following letter from Ms. Gehring, describing in her own words her experience of participating in the march and of witnessing Dr. King's historic speech first hand.

The March on Washington, 1963

I attended the March on Washington by chance. I was working in Washington, DC that summer as a paid summer intern at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I had returned to school in my later years and was between my junior and senior year at the University of Connecticut. I was staying that summer at the house of the University of Maryland chapter of my fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho, in College Park, Maryland. A fraternity sister from the University of Illinois chapter also stayed at the house and worked at USDA, so we went to work together.

For the day of the march, the Federal Government encouraged its employees who worked downtown to stay home and adopted a “liberal leave” policy, which meant that you were not required to work but if you didn’t you had to take a day of annual leave. (I don’t remember if they called it “liberal leave” back then, but that is the term today.) As I was a temporary hire, I did not get annual leave, so if I had taken the day off, I would not have been paid, and I needed all the money I could save for college expenses.

There was quite a bit of fear about the march. People were afraid that it would end in riots. And the civil rights movement was not popular in the South, it not surprising to note. There was not much sympathy among my Maryland fraternity sisters (some of whom has a pretty southern accent to my Yankee ears.) Personally, I was very supportive of integration. We had even tried, unsuccessfully, to integrate our chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho at U-Conn, but that is another story.

In any case, my fraternity co-worker decided not to go to work that day. So I had to take a bus downtown. The bus was full of black people (called negroes or colored folks then), going down to the march, and to my happy surprise, they were in a very festive mood.

I went to the USDA to work for the morning. The USDA is the only USG department located right on the Mall (all the other buildings on the Mall are either Smithsonian museums or monuments. The main and oldest building is on the mall at 14th street, north of Independence and the building I worked in was across Independence on the south side. As I was located right in the middle of the action, I decided to go out to see what was going on during my lunch hour. I walked across the mall to Constitution and joined the throngs of people walking towards the Lincoln Memorial.

Everyone was in a very festive mood. I got close enough to the Lincoln Memorial to see and hear what was going on. To my delight Joan Baez was singing. I had heard her in Hartford a year or so earlier and she was my favorite folk singer. Back as school, a friend of mine used to practically worship at the record player as we sat and listened to her singing. It was ironic that she was at the march, because the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let Joan sing at Constitution Hall so she sang instead at the march, and I got to hear her for free. There were also speeches, but I don’t remember all the speakers that afternoon. The one speech I do remember was MLK’s speech. You could have heard a pin drop when MLK stepped up to the microphone. With the mass of people attending this was really something. I remember his voice was strong and his speech offered hope to those who had long suffered the effects of their color. The flags were waving and cheers at times would drown out the speaker so that he would repeat himself. The fear that the government spread of violence was not to be seen. Here was hope for a better future and life for all. Shoulder to shoulder we stood all the colors of the melting pot called America. Hate and fear had no place here. Someone had heard the call of the people and stood strong to support it. MLK’s dream spread through the crowd on waves of peace. He promised to carry the banner and the mass of people believed him. Finally a voice came into the light from out of the darkness. His dream of equality for all was heard. A dream filled with hope not hate. A dream that touched all who heard it. Everywhere around me people smiled united in hope. Prayers were said and marchers joined hands. Voices were raised not in anger but in peace and love for what surely would come from so great a man. Once the speech ended the crowd slowly milled toward their own destiny. The police surrounding the mall were ready for an outbreak that was not to come. MLK had reached the hearts of hope for a better day for all. Each individual in that crowd knew that his dream would spread around the country and that change will come. Today was a new day. Tomorrow would be better. This was the time and MLK was the man who would bring the dream to life.

In any case, after an hour or so, I went back to work, and took the bus home in the evening without incident. All in all, it was an exciting event at an exciting time.

Theresa Gehring

Recited to my son Robert Gehring on this day August 23, 2009

 

 
An extremely rare American flag pennant carried in the March on Washington and present during Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech.   Media:  Printed Paper

Dates:  August 28, 1963

War:  None

Type:  Paper Flag Pennant

Catalog Number:  IAS-00011


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Rare Theodore Roosevelt
and William McKinley
Campaign Textiles, 1900

 


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