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50 years later, marcher would whisper in MLK's ear: It worked

Aug. 28, 2013 at 11:37 AM ET

When Rosemary McGill first came to the nation’s capital 50 years ago as a black teenager from the Deep South, she associated whites with the Klu Klux Klan.

“As a matter of fact, I was not that familiar with those outside my own racial group,” she recalled Wednesday.  

But traveling to Washington, D.C., to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver what would be his historic “I Have a Dream” speech changed her mindset. The individuals in the crowd she mingled with moved her as much as King’s stirring words.

“I was in awe and taken aback by the multicultural and the multiracial makeup of the group that day,” she said on TODAY. “It kind of changed my attitude based on what I saw. It was like a mecca. I had never seen that many racial groups come together.”

As thousands gathered around the National Mall to observe the 50th anniversary of the slain leader’s speech, some individuals who heard the legendary address firsthand recounted their emotional memories.

Edith Lee-Payne took a Greyhound bus with her mother from Detroit to celebrate her 12th birthday with King.

“It was so incredible to see so many people from all walks of life all standing together in unity after having heard of so many disturbances,” she told Al Roker in Washington, where she returned 50 years later with her two granddaughters "so they'll have the same kind of hope that I have for what we’re facing in today’s society."

Edith Lee-Payne, who appeared in an iconic photo (left), spoke to Al Roker Wednesday about her experience at the march.
TODAY
Edith Lee-Payne, who appeared in an iconic photo (left), spoke to Al Roker Wednesday about her experience at the march.

Gordon "Gunny" Gundrum was a U.S. Park Service ranger who found himself standing next to King the entire day of his speech as part of his security detail. He was one of the very few white men who shared the stage with the leader.

“It was the luck of the draw basically. I never could find out why I was positioned there but I was there,” Gundrum told Willie Geist in New York.

At the time, the Park Service expected disruptions and various other problems related to having 20,000 people gather in one area.

“When that sea of people showed up, it was unbelievable. It was a thrill, and a lot of mixed feelings that hopefully things would go well,” he said.

And it did. Gundrum credited the entertainers who performed before King’s “beautiful speech” for providing a calming effect on the crowd.

The experience inspired Gundrum to become a New York state trooper. Now retired, he noted that he entered law enforcement during an era of unrest in the civil rights movement.

Retired N.Y. state trooper Gordon Gundrum.
TODAY
Retired N.Y. state trooper Gordon Gundrum was assigned to Dr. King's security detail.

“Through what I learned that day, I think it made me a better policeman, a more fair policeman and I tried to practice that always,” he said.

King’s son, Martin Luther King III, was only five when his father delivered the speech. He said his father would have been pleased to know that President Obama would be presiding over the speech's silver anniversary observance.

“He would be very proud of the fact that our nation came together in 2008 and elected its first African American president — and re-elected president,” he said, also noting the strides black business leaders have made in the corporate world.

But King said his father also would be concerned over the staggering unemployment rate among young blacks and that violence among African Americans continues at “epidemic levels in our communities.”

“He’d be very concerned that, although his children are judged by the content of their character, that many young people it seems are first judged by color and later by the content of their character, as we saw in the example of Trayvon Martin, who was certainly profiled,” he told Roker. 

McGill, now a multicultural specialist at Eastern Florida State College, said she believes King would be satisfied by the progress made since he recounted his dreams for the nation 50 years ago.

“If it was in the providence of God to let Dr. King look back, I’d like to whisper in his ear and say, the march worked. His dream has been fulfilled," McGill told Willie Geist. "We still have many a battle to fight. The war is not over, but what we were fighting at that particular time, or that dispensation of time, would make him proud.”

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