Attendees remember March on Washington on anniversary

Fifty years ago today, Norman Imgrund boarded a bus very early in the morning so that he could be in Washington, D.C., later that day.

He wasn’t sure what to expect. He just knew he had to be there.

Imgrund was a young deacon of the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese at the time. But he didn’t go as a member of a religious group or as part of a specific organization. Even years later, he still can’t really put into words why he felt he had to go. He said he just felt drawn by something inside himself.

“I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I just had to go,” Imgrund said. “It was very important, an important part of our history. I knew people from other parts of the country were going, and I had to go, too. I didn’t have a choice.”

What struck everyone once they got to the gathering place in the nation’s capital was that almost half the people there were white, Imgrund said. The marchers had expected that most of the people who showed up would be African-American, but they were buoyed by the fact that the crowd was almost half full of white people, he said.

“That was just a shock in itself,” he said.

Imgrund, now a senior priest in the diocese living in Jersey Shore, said he remembers the day clearly like it was yesterday.

It was the day he was one of about 250,000 people who marched on Washington, D.C., culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech about his dream for America.

“He summed up the spirit of everybody there,” Imgrund said. “Everybody was up on their feet, like this is where they belonged. It was a turning event for the country.”

Imgrund marched with the people from the U.S. Capitol building to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King spoke.

Another person in the crowd that day, Audrey Fuller, who was born in Altoona, said King appeared “magical” that day.

“He was so emotional, like he could move the world,” she said Tuesday from her home in Harrisburg, where she now lives. “When you’re young, you think everything can happen.”

Fuller, who’s now 80, is a retired state employee who returned to Washington last Saturday for a 50th anniversary celebration of the march. Fuller has retained her membership in the Blair County NAACP, which sent representatives to the original march in 1963, including the now-deceased Rev. Charles Hickerson of Altoona.

Fuller said this time the anniversary event had many more groups represented, such those seeking enhanced LGBT rights, labor factions and other groups, but she said that was fine with her.

“I saw people chanting in the streets, and they didn’t say what their nationality was, but they knew to get out and be change agents and that’s what it’s about,” she said. “It’s not a black thing or a red thing or a yellow thing. It’s a human thing.”

Imgrund, now 75, couldn’t attend the anniversary march, but after he returned to the Altoona-Johnstown area from the march 50 years ago, he was ordained a priest. He spent the following years trying to bring home the lessons he witnessed in Washington. He would talk to young people, especially in the parishes he served, to encourage them to break down the barriers created by racism. He served in several parishes throughout the years, including Sacred Heart Church in Altoona, St. Thomas More Church in Roaring Spring, St. Patrick’s Church in Newry, St. Matthew’s Church in Tyrone and churches in Everett and Lock Haven.

He urged the youths to ask questions and not accept the status quo of prejudice that they saw in the cities around them. One example he cited in Johnstown was a local pool where Imgrund said a group of African-Americans staged a “swim-in” because they weren’t allowed in otherwise. Before 1964, many public pools in America were segregated.

“It’s not that the pool was that great, in fact it was horrible, but it was the principle of the thing,” he said.

Imgrund believes people need to continue to ask questions and fight racism because King’s work is still not done.

“He was our founding father,” Imgrund said. “The outer battle is fought but not the inner battle.”

One African-American Altoona man who’s no stranger to discrimination is the Rev. Paul Johnson, who said when he was fixing a phone booth for the phone company he was working for, he was almost mistaken for a robber trying to steal money from the phone booth. The people across the street were just getting ready to call the police when they figured out what he was doing, he said.

“I was just wiping off the fingerprints,” said Johnson, who is pastor of the Eighteenth Street Community Church in Altoona. “It’s just crazy.”

When Johnson was in the U.S. Navy, he was told by another sailor that he wasn’t wanted in the division he’d just been assigned to, Johnson said. He would have been the only African-American sailor in the division.

“I have faced racism,” Johnson said. “I have been through it, but it doesn’t define me.”

Johnson, who was 13 at the time of the first civil rights march, said he’s always been inspired by his mother, who taught him there’s “only one race that counts and that’s the human race.”