Minister Recalls Marching In D.C. for Civil Rights in ’63

WHEELING – When the Rev. Charles Ellwood stepped onto a bus headed for Washington, D.C., in 1963, he brought three things: his toothbrush, his health insurance card and some money to bail himself out of jail if necessary.

It is not that Ellwood had getting arrested in mind, but he just didn’t know what might happen. It turned out he didn’t need those things after all.

Ellwood, a Wheeling resident and retired West Liberty University minister, took a bus sponsored by the Urban League of Pittsburgh with two friends to participate in the March on Washington – and to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous ”I have a dream” speech.

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the march.

Ellwood, 82, said he wanted to attend the event because, although he was very aware of what was happening to blacks and black churches throughout the South at the time, he felt as though he was not connected enough to what was happening across the nation.

”I needed to participate and stand with the protesters,” Ellwood said. “We left having no idea what to expect. We felt the worst that could happen is that we would be detained and go to jail. … I think we were the only three white men in the bus. We sat in the back as a symbol.”

On the way into Washington, D.C., traffic was bumper-to-bumper with buses filled with people on their way to the rally.

“The closer we got, the more people were standing on the sidewalks. There were soldiers and police on the rooftops. It was an anxious and exciting time to be with people who were committed to the cause. There was great camaraderie on the bus,” Ellwood said.

There were several other speakers before King, while the heat of the day sent many people leaving early. However, once they heard King’s voice, people turned around and went back to hear him speak.

“It was a stirring experience,” Ellwood said.

King told the crowd, Ellwood said, to work for equality no matter what kind of job they held.

“And that’s what I began to do,” he said.

Back in Wheeling, Ellwood helped form the MLK Committee, which had its first local celebration of King’s life after his 1968 assassination. Clergy and people who were concerned about the Vietnam War came together to form a group now named Ohio Valley Peace.

“It’s good to take a step into something dangerous. … It was a significant moment in my life,” Ellwood said.

At the time, Ellwood said he believed progress would be made more quickly in terms of equality in our society, though he is pleased with the gains made.

“That doesn’t mean the work is done,” he said.

Ellwood said he plans to watch the anniversary celebration on TV, though some day he would like to visit the new MLK memorial.