As he sat in a Biloxi, Mississippi, church, his feet dangling from the pew, four-year-old Andrew Nolen was captivated by the young Alabama minister who stopped by to preach.
Following his sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned to the congregation to share his dream of a world where peace and harmony replaced strife and division.
"I was young, but I do remember it," said Nolen, a Customer Service Representative at Penske's Milwaukee, Wisconsin, location. "I remember him because he was a man of tranquility and peace."
A few years later as Nolen stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on a warm August day in 1963 to hear King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, memories flooded back for the now seven-year-old who took his place in civil rights history.
Nolen recently shared his memories as a living witness to the historic civil rights movement, whose impact would reach across the country to Milwaukee, inspiring thousands, like Marcus Freeman's grandparents, to call attention to racial injustice in their community.
"They participated in those marches because they wanted the best for their kids, and they wanted what was best for the community as a whole," said Freeman, a Management Trainee in Milwaukee.
A Civil Rights Legacy
Nolen's family – his mother, father and uncle – were deeply involved in the civil rights movement alongside King.
Often, the adults included Nolen and his brothers and sisters in the effort. "We had the opportunity to march with Dr. King on certain occasions," Nolen said.
As his family prepared to attend the March on Washington, Nolen, his siblings and about 100 children were sent ahead, taking a route from the south winding through northern states, where the threat of racial violence was less likely but not totally absent.
"We had a chance to see the violence and disruption that was going on as we were traveling through those states," Nolen said.
After the children and their families arrived in Washington, D.C., they joined an estimated 250,000 people to witness King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. The address would influence passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Years later, as Nolen became an adult, his admiration for King never wavered. "I thought Dr. King was remarkable," Nolen said. "He lived what he preached. He lived the life he spoke about."
"In spite of the harm and danger that came his way – and in spite of him knowing his life was in danger, he was speaking to all mankind from that podium," Nolen said. "His legacy is his belief that we can make this world a better place for our children and grandchildren."
Marching in Milwaukee
King's mantle of non-violent protest inspired others, like James Groppi in Milwaukee, to bring attention to elements of racial inequality in their own communities.
With the help of the local NAACP chapter, Groppi, a Catholic priest and civil rights activist, organized marches to bring attention to unfair housing practices levied against African Americans in Milwaukee.
When he was a young adult, Freeman's grandparents shared their experiences about taking part in the marches. "While my grandfather was participating in a march, there was a sniper following them the whole time," Freeman said.
Counterdemonstrators often hurled insults as well as bricks during the marches, but participants including Freeman's grandparents continued with the non-violent protest.
Freeman said he could not be prouder of his grandparents and their place in the history of Milwaukee's civil rights movement.
"You may not recognize how that has impacted you as a person, but really, if it wasn't for all of those marches, I wouldn't have the opportunity to choose where I want to live," Freeman said. "They did that for the community and for other people."
By Bernie Mixon