On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Jim Macdonell stood a mere few feet away from the making of history.
He was there at the Lincoln Memorial, standing near the steps, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Macdonell, 80, said he knew then and there, that his life would never be the same.
Macdonell, a resident of King Farm in Rockville, is the founding member of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda. He is known as a local civil rights activist was inducted into Montgomery County’s Human Rights All of Fame in 2004.
After hearing King speak, Macdonell went on to carry out voter registration drives in Mississippi—despite threats of harm from police and the menacing White Citizens Council—and marched with King in Selma, Ala.
Fifty years later, thousands are expected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in the District.
Macdonell reflected on his experience, what it was like to be the March on Washington, and how King’s historic speech changed his life.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
PATCH: Tell me about your first encounter with Martin Luther King.
MACDONELL: I first met him in Chicago, at The Chicago Sun Evening Club, a lecture series—very prestigious. I was going to Lake Forrest College. I went down to hear this speaker, a young, unheard of graduate student from Boston. It was Martin Luther King. He absolutely mesmerized this group of very distinguished Chicagoans. He spoke on the theological doctrine of man. I think everybody there thought, “You know, we're going to hear from this guy someday.”
PATCH: What was your experience with what was becoming known as the Civil Rights Movement prior to that?
Macdonell: I had not been involved at all. I'm Presbyterian—I was raised in a strong family. I used to spend my weekends in neighborhood houses. I was committed and I knew the problems—Chicago had a lot of problems. It was a very racially insensitive place at that time.
I later decided to go into the ministry … but I had only been involved in a peripheral way, at the neighborhood house.
PATCH: What was the turning point for you? What made you become more involved with the Civil Rights Movement?
MACDONELL: Working the neighborhood houses. I was the back-up artist for the Buck Roger's comic strip. I somehow knew there was something more for me to do than drawing funny pictures. I went to college to either become a social worker or a minister—I ended up becoming a minister.
It was working in the inner city. I was a naive kid from Evanston, Illinois. I came from a very active family, but we were very out of touch with reality. You can go to Chicago, to State and Madison Street [a nicer area of the city, a few blocks from Millennium Park], and six blocks west you're in a terrible part of town. … I never knew that side of life until I started working in the neighborhood houses with kids who had very, very little and not much hope for the future.
I knew I wanted to make a difference somehow.
PATCH: Tell me about Mississippi.
MACDONELL: It was three months (after the March on Washington). The National Council of Churches called and asked if I would do a voter registration drive in Canton, Mississippi. It was a very scary place.
Canton, Mississippi was home to the White Citizens Council. Next to the Klan, it was the worst organization in the South.
I went down there with three other people to lead classes in how to prepare to vote. I spoke every night in rural black churches. It was a truly scary experience.
Were you ever in fear of your life?
Macdonell: Yeah. The first day I was there, the civil rights workers in town, laughing, said dial this number—it was a dial-up hate number. There was this recording that had my name, where I was from, telling everybody to watch out for us because we were trouble makers, these outsiders who've come to mess up our nice town.
Every place we went there were police. When we went out to these rural churches, there was a police car there the whole time. I drove very carefully, hopping I never got pulled over. I was eventually pulled over and was taken to the police chief, who threatened us—we'd better get out of town because there's nothing they could do to help us. It was a veiled threat.
It was probably the scariest 10 days of my life.
PATCH: What was it about that experience that made want to be involved even more?
MACDONELL: It was not without a price. I had a brand new church [Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda]. Plenty of my members left because of that. Now, I don't want to give you the wrong impression. My church was very supportive. I could not have done the things I did in my life without that kind of support. They wanted me to be involved, and they were there because I was involved. They put up with an awful lot of nonsense for me.
PATCH: What was it like there, at the March?
MACDONELL: I had never seen so many people there in my life. You could see people all the way to the Washington Monument. The Mall was totally covered with people, black and white. At a time of racial tension, it was the friendliest group I'd ever met because we were all committed. I was on the steps, just a few feet below him [Martin Luther King]. … People were passing out because it was so hot. Then, finally, Bayard Rustin said, "Now the man you've been waiting to hear, Dr. Martin Luther King." The crowd went wild. Then, it was very quiet. He started speaking, but about three sentences in, he cast aside his manuscript and gave this off-the-cuff speech. It's unbelievable. It's lyric poetry. I think we knew at the time, this is going to go down as one of the greatest speeches of our time.
PATCH: Everybody knows that speech, but it must have been a far different matter to experience it real time. What was that like?
MACDONELL: It was unbelievable. After he finished, stepped back from the microphone. There was dead silence. You could have dropped a pin. Then the whole crowd erupted with cheers and sobs. It was a clarion call and it was what was absolutely needed. The reason of the civil rights march was to influence Congress to pass civil rights laws. This was an overwhelming success, what the Civil Rights Movement needed. It was a shot in the arm, to cause things to happen.
PATCH: So it was definitely clear to you, then and there, that what you were experiencing was going to be a defining moment in history.
MACDONELL: I knew it then. That was a defining moment of my life. I think of him [King] as my mentor. I wanted to be that kind of minister. I wanted to be an activist. I'm not a brave guy or an out-front type person, but I've got to do something. I became an activist because if King can do it, why couldn't I—shouldn't I—be involved.