Goshen News, Goshen, IN

August 28, 2013

Former GC provost John A. Lapp witnessed history from the National Mall a half century ago today


GOSHEN — Even half a century later, it’s a dream that carries the power to inspire the minds and hopes of millions.

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and delivered his historic “I have a Dream” speech to the cheers of hundreds of thousands who shared his vision of freedom, opportunity and justice for all.

It was a speech that changed the nation, and it’s a moment longtime Goshen resident and former Goshen College dean and provost John A. Lapp will never forget.

“At the time I was teaching at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va., which is a little more than 100 miles from Washington,” Lapp said from his home in Goshen Tuesday afternoon. “I was very active in a group called the Virginia Council on Human Relations at the time, which was working to reduce the separation of peoples and overcome the segregated schools and everything else that was segregated.”

Upon hearing of the planned speech and march, Lapp quickly made plans to load up a car with fellow friends and colleagues and head out to Washington D.C. for the historic event, unsure of exactly what they might find when they arrived.

“We got there by around 9 a.m. that day, and the speech was given around 11:30 a.m. or noon,” Lapp said. “So while we waited, we sang the freedom songs, we chanted, we cheered at the various speakers, and then I think it was about noon when King finally took it over.”

Thinking back on that time, Lapp remembers an atmosphere of overwhelming joy and inclusiveness, of buzzing energy and a feeling that something historic was happening before his very eyes.

“It was a festival... a real celebration,” Lapp said. “I think 99 percent of the people there were true believers. They were supporters and admirers of King, and they were from all walks of life. I remember seeing buses — hundreds of buses — that came from all across the country, from New England and Mississippi.”

As unforgettable as that day was, Lapp says there’s one aspect that never fails to come to the forefront when remembering that historic gathering: the music.

“There was music and singing in which the whole crowd got involved,” Lapp said. “I remember the Negro spirituals, which were fairly familiar to both the whites and the blacks. And of course we sang ‘We shall overcome’ many, many times, along with many other songs. It was really amazing. I mean, it’s very difficult to form a choir with that size of a group, but we were all together in one accord that day.”

Jumping forward to today, Lapp said he had no idea at the time just how important the speech he was witnessing would become in the continuing battle for civil rights. Even so, he was quick to note that there is still more to be done.

“There’s definitely still work to be done,” Lapp said. “There’s been enormous progress. For example, in Harrisonburg we had a segregated school system, which was common to the whole state and far beyond. Blacks were limited on where they could live, where they could go to school, the jobs they could have.

“But I think the statement that was made that day by the 200,000 people who attended was a statement that things had to change, and specifically the outward practices of segregation,” he continued. “So it’s a cumulative thing, and it’s a struggle that’s still going on. But a dream is something that I think all of us should have, and continue to keep working toward.”