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MLK's Dream Across Decades


We return now to our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The civil rights movement was more than an idea or a series of events - it was a major force that changed the everyday lives of millions of Americans. A perfect example of this is John Tatum. We recently spoke with a 94-year-old athlete about competing at the National Senior Games. That's an achievement that is captured in the film "Age of Champions." Tatum also attended the March in 1963 and he told us about his memories of growing up in Washington before the end of legalized segregation.

JOHN TATUM: I was thinking about it on the way over here. Sometime in the near-1925 era, I was probably 5 or 6 years old, I remember standing on the corner of 22nd and Virginia Avenue Northwest. That year they had the clan convention here in Washington, D.C., and as a man I just wondered how they could allow them to do that but they had a clan convention. I remember standing on the corner holding my mother's hand and we watched the clansmen on horseback taking their steeds back to the stables down where the Watergate is now. Down in there had a lot of stables, down in there. They must've had a parade on Constitution Avenue - and just to see that and asking what it was about. And I don't remember the words I got from my mother about what the clan was about. She didn't seem frightened enough at the time and neither was I because I didn't know.

But, I mean, that's about the earliest things that I can remember in the stages of segregation because I still remember 1926. I was in the first program of Negro History with Carter G. Woodson. I remember seeing him personally, you know, at the school and talking about civil rights and he was supposed to be recording all of the Negro history at the time. And it was really a Negro History Week at the time and that was all it was. And we had programs all during that time but...

MARTIN: ...You also were telling us, when we spoke last, of one of your memories was of teaching your grandmother, who had been an enslaved American, how to read. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

TATUM: Yeah, I was trying to tell her - and I really, as a boy, I didn't understand why she didn't comprehend. But we had - you know, your parents and grandparents were in a house as long as they lived. There was no Social Security. When they finished working that's it, they would be told just to go home. But I tried to teach her how to read, how to spell, what this name was, but she was amused but I didn't think she ever got to know really how to sign her name.

MARTIN: Did she ever talk to you about slavery? Do you remember any of the stories?

TATUM: No, I don't remember, but my granddaddy did. He used to tell me things about, you know, horses. He had to draw the horses up and he used to try to learn how to read from the white kids. He would, you know, mark something in the sand and tell them this and ask them how to spell this and they'd write it and say it - well, he never learned how to read from them because I guess the older people would probably be not, you know, reflective of that. So...

MARTIN: ...Do you remember what it was like when you realized what slavery was?

TATUM: Yes, I think that came along the same time when Negro History Week came. You know, we were so into our own thing. We were there in that area down by the Lincoln Memorial - we lived down that way and we had our own schools and segregation so far as theatres and movie houses and all. The only thing - you never had a trouble with transportation in the city. You could always ride the bus, streetcars, and horseback and all of that.

MARTIN: Do you remember a happy childhood growing up in Washington or not? Or were there times when it wasn't?

TATUM: I had a happy time the whole time until, you know, I found when the barriers start to reflect on you - as a kid, you know, none of these things bother you but when you get up and you can't do this. You can't go in that playground. You can't go to that school. In the school you read books that were handed down from the white schools with the names and scratches, but we read - and we had the best teachers. Our teachers were people you looked up to like they were presidents or kings or something. Mostly women, I don't think we had any man teachers during my time but mostly women and they dressed well, they smelled well and they taught well, and they never let you get away with any crap.

MARTIN: OK. I'm speaking with John Tatum about his memories of his 90-plus years growing up in Washington, D.C. You were at the March on Washington...

TATUM: ...Yes, I was.

MARTIN: ...You were telling us. What were your memories of that day?

TATUM: Well, I thought it was quite a tremendous thing. You know, I walked from, I think, up by the Treasury Department down to Constitution Avenue and got in line and I was just surprised at the number of people that were in the line. I worked in a computer group in the Navy Yard and we were all off that day or something. And none of my counterparts came to the March. But in the line there were whites beside me, behind me, front of me, walking just like I was walking, and I thought this was a day that would live, you know, in our memory. And I never got up close, but I was in the trees and I always thought about that some of the people along the reflecting pool I saw and some people standing in the open and see, well, people under the trees all the way as far as the eye could see.

MARTIN: You knew even then that it was a big day.

TATUM: I knew. We had a million people down there and it was a big day. And the speech - I didn't know how famous it would be at the time, you know, because Martin Luther King speaks very well. Some of his speeches were tremendous, especially the one the night before he was murdered - that speech that was really a heavy speech also.

MARTIN: But you're saying the "I Have a Dream" speech, at the time, you thought, that's a pretty good speech but not one of his best? Is that it?

TATUM: Right, right, you know, and I didn't know it would...

MARTIN: ...You gave it two stars.

TATUM: ...Yeah, yeah, instead of three.

MARTIN: Instead of three.

TATUM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you remember - I don't know how you would not remember this, but many people will remember that after Dr. King was killed that there were riots in Washington. Do you remember that?

TATUM: Yes, that was my birthday, April 4, 1968. And we were coming out of work that day - they let us all off that day. And to come up and see what was taking place - the fires and the looting and stuff like that - that was quite a day and martial law was in place and then we were locked down for a while. So...

MARTIN: ...And you've lived through that and you've lived to see an African-American president...

TATUM: ...Yes.

MARTIN: ...And an African-American family in the White House. I have to ask, honestly, did you ever think you'd see that in your lifetime?

TATUM: Not in my lifetime. I did after, you know, he was up for nomination and all, I thought that was a possibility. But up until that time, you know, I never - not just Obama but a man, you know.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how did you feel when he did become president? Do you remember how you felt?

TATUM: I didn't know what to think about it. At the time but just to know that this is a possible - I felt the same way that the third world countries felt about it, that they never thought the United States would allow that to happen. And I didn't think it would allow it to happen, but now we will see what a black president could do - the same as any other president.

MARTIN: When you think back over your long life in Washington, D.C., what's your happiest day and what's your saddest day, if you don't mind my asking?

TATUM: Well, the saddest day, you know, losing family members, especially your spouse and then your children, you know. And my happiest days is to be able to find work, although not what I would like to be, you know, segregation and bigotry and all that. I don't know what I could have accomplished if I had a better chance at life and a better education, but I would say to finish my life having, to myself of course, done the best that I could do for my family and for the people around me.

MARTIN: John Tatum is a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C. He is 94 years old and he was kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington, D.C., and John Tatum, thank you so much for offering those memories and reflections.

TATUM: Well, yes, pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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