For 58 Minnesotans, march was a day trip to rememberRobin Washington column: With 250,000 attendees at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, there were more than a few with ties to Duluth.
By: Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune
With 250,000 attendees at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, there were more than a few with ties to Duluth.
But not many are documented. Best known is Bob Dylan, who played duets with Joan Baez on the podium a few feet away from the Rev. Martin Luther King. More obscure is the Rev. Richard Mathison, then of Duluth’s University United Methodist Church and one of 58 official Minnesota delegates to the march.
“He believed strongly in civil rights and preached that. He thought he should put his feet where his mouth was,” Barbara Mathison, now of Brainerd, said Friday of her husband, who later led a Minneapolis church and died in 1979 at 47.
While the march that eventually led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a year later since has gone down as one of the most powerful and positive events in American history, that wasn’t the universal view at the time.
“‘I think there was a great deal of fear,” Ed Flahavan, then a Catholic priest and another Minnesota delegate, said from St. Paul on Saturday. “(Mississippi NAACP field secretary) Medgar Evers had been killed a short time before. The White House was very nervous about it all. The (D.C. government) was afraid of flash fights breaking out.”
Segregationists outright castigated the march. Even in an editorial supporting it, the News Tribune hedged: “If several things go wrong, today’s Civil Rights March on Washington may become a painful page in our country’s record. We can only hope and pray that the many plans and precautions prove wise and sufficient.”
Barbara Mathison recalled the risk her husband was taking, even in his liberal congregation in Duluth.
“There was probably mixed reaction to him going,” she said. “Not everybody was on his side.”
Her memory is less clear about exactly how he got there. But Josie Johnson, 82, also a delegate and a retired University of Minnesota administrator and regent, recalls it well.
“We chartered a plane. We flew from here to D.C.,” she said from her Minneapolis home. “Our congressional delegation met us there. They were very supportive of this march.”
Recorded history matches her account, with News Tribune Washington reporter William Broom writing: “They marched down the ramp of their chartered airliner at 7:45 a.m. into the welcoming handshakes of five congressmen — four Republicans and Democrat Don Fraser.”
There, Broom wrote, lawmakers “were presented with a petition stating the march’s goals and asking for support. The Republicans said they could go along with everything but the $2 minimum wage request, which (U.S. Rep. Al) Quie described as unrealistic.”
The state’s three other Democratic congressmen and Sens. Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy met the delegates at a church later in the morning.
“When we got (to Washington), I was very worried because I didn’t see any other people,” Johnson said. “When we went out of that church, there were hundreds and eventually thousands.”
Flahavan recalls the same scene unfolding.
“We found a mass of crowds everywhere, being friendly and peaceful and determined,” he said. “It was altogether a magical day. The speeches, the crowds, the tranquility, the singing, the hope, the peacefulness of it all. Somehow, we had an advance text of Dr. King’s speech. It broke off at the end without the ‘I have a dream’ section. That seemed to be pure inspiration.”
Following orders of march planner Bayard Rustin, the marchers immediately headed out of town at its conclusion.
“We did some debriefing on the plane about our role and how we were going to honor Dr. King and the other speakers, to try to encourage freedom and justice and educational opportunities and housing and employment,” Johnson said.
Mathison said her husband carried those themes back to Duluth.
“I’m sure his sermons reflected it,” she said. “It was a monumental experience for him.”
And, now as history, for us all.
Robin Washington is editor of the Duluth News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com