Each January, around the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, students across the country learn about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given on Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. Few teachers, however, have the perspective Vinalhaven history teacher Karol Kucinski has, for he was there 40 years ago, and heard the speech live.
At that time, KK, as he is known around town, was 21 years old and living in his hometown of Amherst, MA. He had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts as a history major, and was planning to go to graduate school in the fall. Two of his favorite history professors had lived in South Carolina, and it was because of them that he became interested in southern history and the civil rights movement. The Springfield, MA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had organized a train car especially for those wanting to attend the March on Washington. KK decided to go with a friend of his who was also a history major. A special train just for March participants picked up that car as well as others along the way. The train left Springfield at midnight. “Virtually everyone on the train was white,” KK recalled, “and there were a lot of older women. We were all singing freedom songs to while away the six-hour train ride.” The fact that there were important civil rights events going on at the time he was interested in civil rights is, to KK, a “happy coincidence.”
One of KK’s most vivid memories of that trip is getting off the train at Union Station. “We walked up the stairs at Union Station and stopped for a moment. I turned around and realized I was standing a foot away from a soldier with a rifle and a bayonet. I was very surprised! The whole station was lined with soldiers standing an arm’s length apart. There was an overwhelming police presence. As Americans, we’re not used to that,” he said.
The atmosphere on the Mall, KK remembers, “was like a picnic or a holiday. You knew you were with friends even though you were all strangers. It was a beautiful day, warm, people were wandering around, there was singing and some entertainment. People were happy to be there. It meant something to them, and they were happy that lots of other people were there. Everybody was polite.”