Stanley Welch didn’t join the crowd at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Welch had already been there, done that—witnessing King’s speech in person 50 years ago, a life-altering moment that stays with him to this day.
“The time went by. Fifty years!” Welch, a 69-year-old retired New Haven office staffer for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, reflected from the comfort of the sunlit “sanctuary” den of his Beaver Hills home.
As Wednesday’s anniversary approached, “I said to myself, ‘I can’t stand out there as long as I did at 19. I’m old! I don’t want to be out in a crowd that long in the heat.’”
The anniversary nevertheless brought back a rush of memories. Welch recalled those memories in an interview Sunday, of a moment in American civil-rights history that he shared with hundreds of thousands of people, of a speech like none other he had heard before or has heard since.
The heat was no problem for Welch when he landed at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington days before starting his sophomore year at New Haven’s Southern Connecticut State Teachers College (now Southern Connecticut State University). He had paid $15 for a seat on the overnight NAACP-chartered bus leaving Boston. (The $15 ticket included a sandwich, beverage, chips, and piece of fruit.)
Welch, the son of a truck driver and a homemaker, was spending the summer back home with his family in Malden, Mass. His older brother Robert drove him to a rally preceding the bus’s departure. Caught up in the rally, his brother decided to join the bus ride, too.
Welch wasn’t involved in politics at the time. He did believe in community service, pursuing a teaching degree. He had kept up with the daily history being made by the civil-rights movement; he saw this as a chance to be counted.
Just Another Celebrity
The bus arrived in traffic-clogged D.C. at 9 a.m., as marchers had already set out from the Washington Monument over to the Lincoln Memorial. Welch’s Boston crew was too late to join in.
Which in a way proved a stroke of luck for Welch. The Boston contingent included two celebrities, basketball great Bill Russell and actor/signer Sammy Davis Jr. The contingent was ushered to a prime spot at the march’s destination, right in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
There Welch and his brother found themselves standing in the second row—in front of 250,000 people—facing a daylong roster of entertainers and civil-rights orators making history.
They stood there for more than seven hours in the scorching 90-degree sun. Welch, who ran high-school track and was still in his prime, had no problem. He was in awe by the scale and communal spirit of the gathering.
Along with Russell and Davis, actors like Charlton Heston stood right in front of him.
“I wanted to say, ‘Can I get an autograph?’” Welch recalled. “But I said to myself, ‘This is serious business. I’ll act like this is normal for me, being around all these celebrities.’”
Until 4:30 p.m. passionate orators alternated with musicians on the steps to the Memorial. Welch didn’t find the speeches themselves all that interesting; he and his brother focused on getting to know two young women from Maryland. “Being 19,” he recalled, “I was mainly interested in young ladies.” And he loved music. He enjoyed seeing up-close the performances by Richie Havens, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul & Mary.
One of the performers was a a young folksinger Welch had never heard before. His voice startled Welch. “Who is this guy?” Welch thought. “He can’t sing!” The singer introduced a new song called The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, about the unprovoked killing of a 51-year-old black barmaid by a wealthy white young tobacco farmer, who ended up receiving just six months in jail. Welch was startled again—by the power of the song. When he returned home, he would buy a bunch of albums he could find by the folksinger, a rising star by the name of Bob Dylan.
To The Mountaintop
As the rally drew to a close, one speaker remained: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader and prophetic voice of the civil-rights movement.
King read a prepared text for 10 minutes. Welch didn’t pay much attention. He’d heard a lot of speeches that day.
Then King broke from his speech. Improvising in preacherly cadences, with growing intensity, King began describing a dream:
.. a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” ...
a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. ...
a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice ...
a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ...”
Welch snapped to attention. He had never head a speech like that before.
The entire crowd snapped to attention. The Memorial assumed the feel of a black church, with congregants shouting responses to King, pushing him on.
King preached about mountains and hilltops. Fifty years later, Welch would remember those mountains and hilltops.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. ...
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. ...
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
“He’s a preacher. So he has a way of getting people involved and using intonations to excite the people,” Welch recalled of King. “When he starting talking about the mountains of New Hampshire to Stone Mountain, I said, ‘Whoa! What an analogy!’
“It felt like the whole 250,000 people were involved in that speech. Especially the second part, when he started talking about his dream.”
“I Wanted To Do Something”
The entire nation talked about that dream. It helped fuel years more of intensive protests and lobbying that led to landmark civil rights laws and a changed nation.
Welch left the rally changed, too.
“I felt inspired,” he recalled. “I wanted to do something.”
When he returned to New Haven, he got involved with the local chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), joining demonstrations for fair housing and equal employment opportunities in the midst of urban renewal and at the dawn of the Great Society.
He finished his undergraduate work in Massachusetts, then settled back in New Haven. He ran a workshop for mentally-retarded adults. He ran a teen center for the old Untied Newhallville Organization.
He got involved in electoral politics, first with the 1975 reform Democratic mayoral campaign of Frank Logue. He got to know two fellow campaign workers, future Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and her future husband, political scientist Stanley Greenberg. Welch ran a phone bank for Greenberg during the Logue campaign. After the campaign he went to work for Greenberg’s new company, which would one day would become an internationally influential polling operation, helping to elect BIll Clinton, Tony Blair, and Nelson Mandela, among others.
Welch moved on to the staff of Bruce Morrison after Morrison became New Haven’s U.S. Congressman in 1983. Welch remained on the staff when Rosa DeLauro won the seat eight years later. Welch was a case worker specializing in helping veterans. He rose to serve as deputy district director while retaining his veterans’ portfolio. Welch remained with DeLauro until his retirement in June of 2011.
He also had an “unwritten” but equally important role on DeLauro’s staff, he said: liaison to the African-American community. He took the role seriously. It tied him to the mission imparted at that day of dreaming at the Lincoln Memorial.
“If felt it was my responsibility,” Welch said. “I helped me to feel I was assisting part of the dream. I was making sure my people had access to a member of Congress.”
Tuned Back In
Although he didn’t travel to D.C. for the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, Welch did travel to Seymour. Comcast interviewed him there for a video project the company is putting together, compiling memories of people who participated in the historic event. Comcast gave him a DVD recording of the interview (pictured above).
Welch also traveled to Philadelphia for a gathering of interviewees in the project, which is entitled His Dream, Our Stories. (Click here for more information about that project.)
Then Welch settled on the comfy sofa of his home’s “sanctuary” den, where plants and African art and wooden zebras and portraits of Charles MIngus, Thelonious Monk, and BIllie Holiday line the walls. He looked at the 60-inch Sharp video screen. He clicked on the remote to MSNBC, which was broadcasting live Saturday from DC’s 50th anniversary rally. Welch returned to the scene—and to the mountaintop.