Plainfield author remembers her March on Washington
By Rianna Starheim
For The Times Argus | August 27,2013
Photo by Rianna Starheim
Leda Schubert, of Plainfield, looks through “The Day They Marched,” which she bought shortly after attending the March on Washington 50 years ago.
PLAINFIELD — For Leda Schubert, there was never any question — she would walk in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Newly graduated from high school and 17 years old, she didn’t realize she was taking part in one of the most defining moments of the American civil rights movement and the nation’s history, she recalled recently.
She was one of an estimated 250,000 at the march Aug. 28, 1963.
“It was just part of who I thought I was,” said Schubert, a 43-year resident of Plainfield. “Somebody who cared desperately about justice and equality and peace and bringing that to the world.”
On Wednesday 100,000 are expected to follow in the footsteps of the original marchers to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic peaceful protest.
Even as a teenager, Schubert was no stranger to activism. She grew up in a progressive family, and her mother, Edith, was involved in founding the first integrated nursery school in Washington, D.C. In 1963, Schubert was already a committed civil rights activist and had traveled to New York to picket Woolworth stores in support of integration.
“I spent a lot of time picketing the White House,” Schubert recalled, laughing.
So it seemed only natural to board an early-morning bus into Washington from her home in the suburbs and attend the march along with five high school companions.
The group was among the first to arrive at the National Mall and took turns searching for Bob Dylan as they watched thousands of people pour out of buses onto the National Mall, she said. “Everybody was smiling and singing,” she said. “There was that sense of optimism like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to change the world.’”
As the people assembled, the energy behind the rally began to move the massive crowd. “It was truly a movement of the people. The theory was that the leaders would head the march, but people got impatient and just started marching,” Schubert said. “So I grabbed a picket sign and joined them.”
“We Shall Overcome” was a constant refrain during the day. “It was a movement of song,” Schubert said. “The songs of the movement kept people sane.”
Marian Anderson — who in 1939 had been denied permission to sing for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall — performed the national anthem and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” “It was right that Marian Anderson was there singing,” Schubert said.
It was a day of speeches, peaceful protest and crippling heat. Toward the end of the gathering, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “I remember being hot and tired and being woken up by the intensity and the energy of King’s speech,” Schubert said. “Everyone was on their feet clapping.”
Fifty years after the march, Schubert reflects on the importance of that day. Despite a fleeting memory “on most things,” Schubert remembers many details of the march. “I remember a lot about the course of that day because some things just get imprinted, some things are so important. It’s something I’ve carried with me and thought about every year since then.”
Schubert remembers the day of King’s assassination, April 4, 1968, as one of the most shocking of her life. She was in Washington when she heard the news and recalls wandering the streets of the city the next day. “There were tanks all over Washington, and there were riots and the city was burning. I was crying, I was horrified, I was scared,” she said.
Schubert, 67, has a Master of Arts in teaching from Harvard. Though no longer politically active, she channels her desire to effect change through a different medium: writing children’s books.
“If you want to change the world, you’ve got to get to little kids,” she said. “We have to teach putting larger goals in front of individual goals.”
Her books are about the ways that people connect and do things that are important to them. In her most recent book, a 2012 biography about French mime Marcel Marceau, Schubert wrote, “The mime must make reality into dreams and dreams into reality.”
Schubert is less than optimistic when she reflects on the progress — or lack thereof — of equal rights over the last half century. “Yes, we have a black president, and yes, he has said some amazing things,” she said. But Schubert cites examples of “inexcusable inequality”: the Supreme Court’s striking down of parts of the Voting Rights Act, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, education and wealth inequality, high poverty rates.
“If I were in (today’s young) generation, I would be desperate,” she said. “It’s frightening for me to watch and be informed and see disaster happening and feel that nobody has the political courage to change it.”
She said she also feels that the political activism of her youth is lost to today’s young generation. “In the ’60s we might not have accomplished everything we hoped to do,” she said. “But at least we did hope.”