Fifty years after marching on Washington, Denver residents celebrate King’s ‘Dream’

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DENVER -- When the March on Washington was announced in the summer of 1963, it came just months after four black girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church, just as police officers there were sicking dogs and fire hoses on the masses of peaceful protesters taking to the city's streets.

That was nothing like the environment for Purnell Steen and other African-Americans living in Denver in the fifties and sixties -- but the racism and discrimination here, while less overt than in the South, was still a fact of life.

Steen, who served as the Boulder chairman for the Congress of Racial Equality, was spit on by an old lady on a downtown street as he led a picket line outside the old Denver Dry Goods store, which wouldn't hire black workers.

"I had to go around the corner into an alley," Steen recalled. "I was so angry I kicked a telephone pole and broke two toes, but I couldn't let anyone know it. We couldn't let anyone know that they got our goat.

"We were absolutely committed to non-violence."

JoKatherine Holliman Page, just a few years older than Steen and his lifelong friend, remembers growing up in Denver, where her grandfather moved after being ran out of Georgia by the Ku Klux Klan. She recalls living in redlined neighborhoods where blacks were confined outside areas unofficially but practically restricted to whites.

As a senior at East High School, she learned she'd won a college scholarship -- but an unexpected lesson about the realities of racism came with it.

"The dean of girls, Pauline Cleaver, called me into her office and said they would not be presenting that award to me on the stage," said Holliman Page, who remembers being taken aback.

Her parents told her it was up to her to decide whether or not to accept the award, which carried a significant amount of money.

Ultimately, she chose not to.

"I found out later that the award was from the Daughters of the American Revolution. When they found out later they would have to present it to a black girl, no way," she recalled.

"And that was a very pivotal moment for me."

By 1963, she was married and living in Washington, attending graduate school at Howard University.

"When the March was announced, I felt, I've got to be there for my father and mother and my grandparents," she said.

Steen, still in Denver, had a longer journey on a hot, crowded bus that was filled with people who were black and white, young and old.

As the bus stopped along the way, the group was repeatedly refused service at restaurants and gas stations. At one point, they wandered onto a riverboat docked along the Mississippi between Missouri and Illinois.

"We were denied a meal there and we had to be escorted by the Missouri State Patrol to the middle of the bridge [over the river]," Steen recalled. "We were escorted to the middle of the river on the bridge because that was the state line."

Such setbacks reminded Steen and others on the bus why their journey was so important.

"Washington, D.C., in our minds, was Mecca," he recalled. "We knew we had to get there; and when we got there, there was just a sea of people, a sea of vehicles."

More than 250,000 people made their way onto the Mall on August 28, 1963. They sang songs, found solace and strength in their numbers and inspiration in the speeches by civil rights leaders standing just beneath the marble-carved Abraham Lincoln statue on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"Hearing Dr. King, hearing the very positive messages from all of the various other leaders that were there gave me a sense of hope that there was hope for the United States of America," Steen said.

"It was so peaceful...and happy...and we sang," remembered Holliman Page, who, like most, thinks of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which wasn't even part of his prepared text, when she thinks about that historic day.

"It just summed up everything we were there fighting for," she said.

When Steen and Holliman Page, who remain friends, met to talk with me about their experiences near the MLK statue in Denver's City Park this week, they both spoke with pride about what their generation managed to accomplish.

"Many people have died for this, they have given their lives for this, so that we could make things better," Steen said. "We just wanted to right the injustices and the wrongs to which we and my ancestors had been subject."

But they also shared a lament, that so much of what they fought for is at risk, that their overarching goal -- King's Dream of an equal, post-racial America -- is yet unattained.

"Part of Dr. King's Dream has become a reality, but the ultimate dream has not yet," Steen said.

Both pointed to the Supreme Court's recent ruling overturning much of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of an unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, as evidence that African Americans still have much to overcome.

"It was like we were given an assignment: you're the ones who are going to change things. And I took that very seriously," said Holliman Page, who's worked as a social worker for the last 40 years.

"It's sort of sad that we have not made the strides that we should have made, that I'd hoped we'd have made; and that now we're at the stage, people believe -- some people believe -- that because we have a black president we're all going to be okay.

"I think we should still march. I think we should still challenge the government."