Published on August 27, 2013
Retired Prince Albert dentist Ken Torbert is seen in his home this week, 50 years after joining hundreds of thousands of people for March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.”
Herald photo by Tyler Clarke
Published on August 27, 2013
Retired Prince Albert dentist and Korean War veteran Ken Torbert has travelled the world, including to Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963, where he saw Martin Luther King Jr. give his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Herald photo by Tyler Clarke
A significant shift in human rights was seen at March on Washington, 50 years ago today -- a moment local man Ken Torbert remembers fondly.
The event felt like a “peaceful big picnic,” Torbert said, albeit one with hundreds of thousands of people.
“It wasn’t until years later that we realized -- gosh, we were there! That was a historic moment,” the retired dentist said, digging up memories over coffee in his Prince Albert home this month.
In August of 1963, Torbert was working as a dentist for the United States Army in Valley Forge, near Philadelphia.
It was an uneasy time for race relations, Torbert said, noting, “you would never really know for sure if (a civil rights rally) would be peaceful or if it might be exciting.”
But, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pulled into town with a bus, offering a free trip and lunch to anyone interested in attending a rally in Washington, Torbert went along for the ride.
“Frankly, it was more adventure than anything else,” he said of his decision to attend March on Washington. “Plus, I believed them.”
The “big picnic” atmosphere didn’t provide the adventure he sought, but it did prove to be a positive experience, Torbert said.
“The anti-integration people were nowhere to be seen. There were no police, there was nothing, you know? It was just a very happy occasion.”
It was a hot day, so Torbert sat on the side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to dangle his feet in the water, while others sought shade under trees.
“Just as I was sitting down, (Martin Luther King Jr.) came on,” he said. “I was halfway down that pond, and to this day I have never seen a picture where I could identify myself -- just too big a mass.
“It was impressive. I had never been in that big a crowd before then or since … I remember listening to him and basically, after a while, begin saying to myself, ‘right on -- right on.’”
People didn’t start standing up until the speech’s namesake “I have a dream” section, during which Torbert said the crowd was at its most enthusiastic.
After the speech, Torbert re-joined the people he came down with. They got back onto a bus and headed back home to have supper. It was as simple as that, he said.
“It really was an impressive speech, but no concept of all that it was a historic moment -- not at all,” he said.
Remarkably, this wasn’t the only historic United States civil rights event Torbert was present for.
In Selma, Ala., there was a significant discrepancy in the early ’60s between the number of eligible African-American voters and those actually registered to vote, with fewer than one per cent coming out to the polls.
On March 7, 1965, a day now known as “Bloody Sunday,” about 600 marchers turned up to protest the voting situation as well as the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson -- a civil rights protester who was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper.
The anti-integration people were nowhere to be seen. There were no police, there was nothing, you know? It was just a very happy occasion. Ken Torbert
Once word came through the Missionary Orientation Centre that “some guys got their heads busted for demonstrating,” the centre, which Torbert was part of, pulled funds together to fly nine people down for a follow up march on Tuesday.
They flew into a neighbouring town and then got into a NAACP-organized bus bound for Selma.
“That was the first time, when I got out of the bus -- and the only time, now that I think of it -- that I was referred to as a ‘white nigger,’ and for the first time realized, there is real hatred in this environment,” he recalled.
During Tuesday’s march, the group of about 2,500 people marched six or seven abreast so they were able to stretch the group over a large area, Torbert said.
On either side of the street were police officers holding billy clubs in a threatening manner.
“You could tell -- they hated me,” Torbert said.
After marching for a while, the group faced a legion of vehicles blocking their path, in opposition.
“Only about 400 or 500 yards in front of us, there were cars parked in front of us, covering all four lanes,” Torbert said. “As far as I could see they were parked.”
Their intent was to march further to Montgomery, the state capital, but the opposition proved too great, Torbert said, noting that the activists “just turned around and walked on back to the church.”
After the events of what is now called “Turnaround Tuesday,” Torbert and the group he came down with were asked to stay in town for a third attempt to march to Montgomery. They declined, citing work obligations at home.
“The truth is, we were gutless,” Torbert said with a chuckle. “We weren’t going to be that committed.”
Reflecting on the events of Turnaround Tuesday, Torbert said that by then, they already knew that they were on the winning end.
The turning point, he said, was King’s March on Washington speech.
“Even though we didn’t realize that it was a historic moment, it was from that moment on that we realized that we had won the war -- that integration was going to take place,” Torbert said.
“Everybody would be able to eat in any restaurant. There wouldn’t be black restaurants, washrooms and that kind of thing.”
Although race relations in the United States have improved drastically, work still needs to be done, Torbert said, noting that a similar thing can be said in Canada when it comes to settlers’ relationship with First Nations and Métis people.
“You know the war’s been won, but you still have to keep wiping out these little skirmishes.”