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Fifty Years after 1963 March in D.C., One Woman Remembers

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Later this month marks the 50th anniversary of a watershed in American civil rights history. That’s when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his “I have a dream” speech.

Tomorrow, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is organizing a march in Seattle to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington. For one woman who grew up in Seattle, the memory is still fresh. 

Dr. Infanta Spence-Lewis still remembers what she wore on that sweltering August day in Washington, D.C.

"A pinstripe dress, and I had on tinted glasses. It was hot, hot," Spence-Lewis said. "I wish I had worn a hat,  but I didn’t."

She was just about 20 years old, a student at the University of Washington. She took a bus all by herself across the country as a youth representative from Mount Zion Baptist Church. When Spence-Lewis got to D.C., was totally overwhelmed.

"Well, I never slept," she said. "I never really slept. I was all edgy because you had no knowledge of the logistics of what you were doing."

Luckily, she wound up staying with a family friend, and he got a seat for her in the 14th row in that sea of a quarter-million people.

She was overwhelmed by the crowd; she had never seen so many African Americans together at one time. And then, when Dr. King started to speak, she says the crowd was spellbound.

"You could only say it’s like you’re hypnotized," Spence-Lewis said. 

Spence-Lewis says the dream that Dr. King spoke of was almost unimaginable for her. Her family had been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, and as a result, it was hard to picture the future of racial harmony that he described. 

"I didn’t know what to think. This man talking about the hills, and our children are going to be in the future together, and black and white together," she said. 

But Spence-Lewis says she realized it was an iconic speech. And she says his words changed her life. She became an infectious disease doctor working on malaria in Africa—a career she traces back to that momentous day 50 years ago.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.