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“People were coming from all over. People were coming in by busloads… It was the biggest thing that had happened in Washington that I remember.”

The scale of the 1963 March on Washington, a Civil Rights demonstration that drew more than 200,000 people, plays a central role in Reston resident Laura Thomas’s memory of the event. While she was 30 then, the 80-year-old recalls that day while holding a circular button she wore for the event: a metal, off-white memento with an arching black print reading “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, August 28, 1963.”

“You might say, ‘Why would you have kept this pin?’… It was a very emotional and moving day,” said Thomas, a retired Fairfax County educator. For Thomas, the pin serves as a small keepsake marking a big event; it is something she can show the grandchildren when trying to explain its significance.

“This was a time of a great deal of violence. People were afraid … We didn’t bring our children [to the March on Washington] because we were afraid to,” Thomas said. “We’re a black family and this was a group of blacks and whites,” a grouping, she explained, that could draw hateful attacks.

Joining a group of about 30 congregants from St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., Thomas and her husband, Carol Thomas — then 32, now 82 — marched about 3.5 miles from the corner of 16th and Newton streets to the National Mall.

“When we were walking down to the [National Mall], we didn’t know what to expect with people seeing a large group of blacks and whites together,” Carol said. Fears were laid to rest as the couple joined the large crowd waiting for civil rights leaders, who gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to address the crowd.

“When it was over, we felt as though a statement was made to end discrimination against blacks. But no one was under the illusion that this would end discrimination,” Carol said. “What I really tell [the grandchildren] is about the need for the march and what it was attempting to address, which was the need for civil rights legislation.”

The March on Washington is remembered for its scale, but the event is best known for civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

“That was some speech. Every word of it. People just clinging on to it,” said Reston resident Denver Lovett, 72, who was a 22-year-old engineering student at Howard University at the time. “It was carefully designed to draw people in from all parts of the country … [The march] was breathtaking. All of the great speeches and the people involved, all the hope and inspiration. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will be marked by events throughout the week, including a rally of members of the Fairfax County NAACP and other groups at the Lincoln Memorial at 8 a.m. Aug. 24, and marches and rallies on the of the official anniversary on Aug. 28 at the Lincoln andMartin Luther King Jr. memorials.

Among those planning to attend 50th anniversary events is Reston resident Melvin “Mel” DeGree, 75, who was in his early twenties when he joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union at the march in 1963. Once among the largest labor unions in the U.S., DeGree said workers filled eight train cars traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C. The train left around 4:30 a.m. and arrived in D.C. a few hours later.

“By the time we got to Washington, the atmosphere was very festive. People were excited to participate,” he said. “It was important for me to be there as a student … I was at the forefront of the student movement [at North Carolina A&T State University, which was on summer holiday in August 1963].”

DeGree was among the students who staged sit-ins on businesses and restaurants that would not serve blacks. He also picketed food and bus services and stores in North Carolina.

Like others who attended the March on Washington, DeGree said he was unsure how D.C. police, federal police or the crowd would react to the gathering.

“For all we knew — for all black people knew — that could have been another Tiananmen Square. The cops could have come at us,” he said. “When you went on a march back then, you didn’t’ know whether you would come home alive.”

The lesson of the Great March is in its peaceful petition for fairness, said Reston resident Carol Bradley, 73. A former Jersey City, N.J., elementary school teacher, Bradley, then 23, joined three other young teachers who borrowed a four-door Buick for the four-plus hour drive to D.C.

“We just wanted to be a part of the experience,” Bradley said. “It was the first time I had been involved in something as a group … I’d never been to the American South. I’d been to Providence, R.I. … Being from the North, we sort of fooled ourselves into thinking we weren’t being discriminated [against].”

The message of the march, she said, was a “commitment to fairness.”

DeGree said, “My reaction was mixed. I loved the sound of [King’s] voice. I loved the emotion in his voice… I personally felt the things he was talking about in his speech were a long way away, but it was hopeful in that someone dared to say what he was so hopeful about. And he dared to say it in front of Congress when it was making the [segregation] laws against us … [Before the march] I didn’t have much hope for white folks supporting us … But in that march, it was like a rainbow … It was like an awakening for me.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com