Fifty years ago, Sala Udin was a 19-year-old living with his aunt and cousin in New York. He was involved in the civil rights movement but was not as active in the struggle as he would soon become.
“I had gotten involved with the Staten Island chapter of the NAACP Youth Council, and they (the NAACP) had a bus they were renting to take people from Staten Island to the March on Washington, and they had an additional 10 seats and they asked the Youth Council if we thought we could fill those 10 seats,” Udin said, remembering back to the days leading up to the Aug. 28, 1963 event. “It turns out that we not only filled those 10 seats, but we chartered another bus for ourselves.”
Udin arrived early at the march that would eventually draw 250,000 people and was able to get a seat near the front where activists, fresh from the struggle in the south, were to share their experiences, as Udin points out, first-hand and not “filtered by the media.”
Also on the list of speakers was Martin Luther King Jr., who grabbed the audience’s attention with what would eventually become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It was obviously spell binding," Udin said. "It was an unbelievable speech … but nobody knew that we were listening to a speech that would be quoted a half a century from then.”
Udin, a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, will be among the 100,000 that are expected to be in Washington this weekend for a series of events to officially mark the 50th anniversary of the march. The actual anniversary falls on Wednesday and will feature much smaller celebrations.
King’s speech and the presentations of the other speakers changed Udin’s life forever.
“I’ll tell you what I was feeling," Udin said. "I want to join this effort, I want to join up. I want to go down South. I want be a Freedom Rider. I’ve got to put myself into the struggle.”
Udin did become a Freedom Rider. He went down to the Mississippi Delta with the intention to stay four months and then return to New York to finish college.
“I ended up staying four years and was arrested at least 30 times,” he said.
Udin has been back to Washington D.C. many times in the last 50 years, but he said none of his other visits were are memorable as his visit for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which Udin called the culmination of the struggle that began 50 years ago.
“That is a rapid transition of history,” Udin said, but he added there is still a lot of work to be done.
“It is amazing how stubborn racism continues to be in America, and how impossible it seems to be for America to purge racism form its culture and its psyche,” Udin said. “Who would think that we would still have to fight for the Voting Rights Act in 2013.”
As Udin looks to the next generation to take up the mantle in the fight, he tells them to “see out of both of eyes.”
“They have to be able to see the vast opportunity that is available to them … but they also have to see the obstacles and the traps that are set for them,” he said.
Udin plans to mark the actual 50th anniversary Wednesday quietly at his home.