Once Charles Chestnut saw the size of the crowd at the March on Washington, he knew he was witnessing history.
Chestnut, the first African-American school board member in Gainesville and a former Alachua County Commissioner, watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his speech in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago Wednesday.
Chestnut, who was 23 at the time, stood about half a football field away from King and was among the 200,000 people in the crowd in August 1963.
“That’s the first time in my life that I had seen that many African-Americans together at one time,” he said.
The march also attracted several different nationalities and races. Chestnut said there were white people in the audience, adding that even people in the Jewish community were up on stage with King.
He said he did not anticipate at the time so many people participating in the march and had no idea he was helping make history. His only expectation was to be a part of the numbers that could send a message to the government.
Chestnut said King had the crowd’s undivided attention when he began his speech.
“The crowning blow came when he went into that oration about ‘I have a dream,’” he said. “That was probably the most touching part of it.”
Chestnut said he thinks the March on Washington was a pivotal turning point in the civil rights movement.
“It woke up America,” he said.