AARP Oklahoma member Joyce Henderson gets chills watching the grainy black and white film of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” fifty years ago.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe I was actually there that day,” she says. “Who would have thought half a century later I’m still reflecting on August 28, 1963.”
Click HERE to watch a video of Joyce reflecting on the March on Washington.
Henderson — a 17-year old student in Clara Luper’s class at Dunjee High School in Spencer – was with Luper and a group of young people in the midst of 250,000 people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King give the keynote speech at the March on Washington.
Marchers had come from all over the country to march for “jobs and freedom” as the program noted. They didn’t realize at the time they were witnessing the turning point in the civil rights movement.
Joyce remembers the size and diversity of the crowd that day. But, she says, she was most excited to hear gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sing.
“When you attend an event of that magnitude as a child, you’re just kind of excited because you are there with so many people and yes, you knew it was something big, but the historical part really came to life for me after Dr. King’s assassination,” she said. “People started talking about his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ but at that time they didn’t call it the ‘I Have a Dream Speech.’ We knew we’d heard a great speech, you could tell that by the crowd and the way we were clapping at his delivery. But, the words starting coming to life for me after his death.”
Returning to Oklahoma, Henderson became more involved in the “sit-in” movement in Oklahoma and continued to travel to NAACP events. Like her mentor Luper, she became an educator and spent 36 years in the Oklahoma City School District as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal at Northeast, Star Spencer, the original Classen High School, Emerson Alternative High School and Classen School of Advanced Studies.
She is a graduate of Langston University, the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma. In addition, she is a member of the Oklahoma African American Education Hall of Fall, the NAACP, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa International.
In 2012, Henderson became the first former employee inducted into the Oklahoma City Public Schools Wall of Fame.
She says Luper’s influence on her life and her involvement in the civil rights movement deeply affected her style of teaching.
“Mrs. Luper was always telling us ‘you can do everything,” she said. “You couldn’t just be mediocre with Clara Luper. She was giving us the recipe for success and she patterned a lot of her guidance to me from what Martin Luther King was doing.”
As the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington approached, Joyce says she knew she had to go back to Washington. And, just like the first time, she marveled at the diversity of the marchers who reassembled at the Lincoln Memorial on August 24th, 2013.
“You have a bond with those who attended in 1963. We were still singing songs and marching. When you would meet people and they would say I was there in 1963 you had an instant relationship and you can’t describe it, you just have to feel it.”
Fifty years later, Joyce marched down Independence Avenue past the 30-foot tall Martin Luther King statue. She’s been back to Washington many times since 1963 – including for the two inaugurations of the nation’s first African American President Barack Obama.
“When we marched past the Martin Luther King Monument, you shake your head and say ‘What an experience!”
As for the legacy of the March on Washington 50 years ago, Joyce says the fight must continue.
“I believe we are still examples of what Martin Luther King’s dream was back then. We’ve got to continue the fight. The fight is not over; we still have to fight for freedom and justice for everybody, not just one class. When you stop and look at what was planted 50 years ago the legacy is that we have to continue with the fight.”