On Aug. 28, 50 years will have passed since Oklahoma City resident Joyce Henderson listened to Martin Luther King deliver what would become the most iconic speech of his life in Washington, D.C.
Henderson traveled from Oklahoma City on one of two chartered buses that carried kids her age to the March on Washington. The group drove straight through, barely stopping even to eat or stretch their legs. Their parents gave them $10 for food, and water was stored on the bus in jugs.
“There was a lot of camaraderie on the bus,” Henderson said. “We sang and talked and had a good time. We were excited to be traveling even if we didn't know what we would be attending would become so important to Martin Luther King's legacy.”
When they arrived in Washington, the whirlwind didn't slow down. Teacher Clara Luper led them to the Washington Mall where King would deliver his speech. But Henderson was more excited to hear gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was performing.
“She was the highlight for me,” Henderson said of Jackson. “I heard the speech, but I didn't understand what it meant until later on. He was alive then so in many ways I was listening to another speech. For me it didn't take on the meaning it has now until after he had died.”
What did make an immediate impression was the size of the crowd. Henderson said King appeared as only a spot as he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the faces of those around her left an indelible impression, as did the atmosphere which she said was one of seriousness, but also hope and togetherness.
“People of all races were singing and holding hands as we walked to the march,” she said.
“I had never seen that many people gathered in once place. That's the thing that gives me chills, even today.”
Henderson was just 17 during that trip. She returned to Oklahoma City to start her senior year at the now closed Dunjee High School. Henderson continued to travel to NAACP events and still considers Luper her mentor. Like Luper, Henderson also became a career educator, serving as principal at Northeast, Star Spencer and the original Classen High School.
But that wasn't Henderson's final trip to Washington/ Serving as an educator in the Oklahoma City Public Schools for more than 20 years she made more trips there for conferences and other events, but none more meaningful than her Jan. 20, 2009, visit to watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama, something she never could have imagined on her first visit there.
She returned four years later to see him sworn in again.
“I had no idea it could happen,” Henderson said of Obama's election. “But Clara Luper would always tell us you could be president of the United States. She would make you really believe you could. He didn't have Clara Luper, but I'm sure there was someone like that in his life.”
People of all races were singing and holding hands as we walked to the march. I had never seen that many people gathered in once place. That's the thing that gives me chills, even today.”