MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, we're remembering the 1963 March on Washington, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Those who attended the march 50 years ago saw a very different city from the District of Columbia today. Back then, Washington was a sleepy, Southern and much more segregated city than it is now. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In 1963, Washington, D.C., was not yet the cosmopolitan capital city that it arguably is today. But it was a mecca for African-Americans, says historian Marya McQuirter.

DR. MARYA MCQUIRTER: Washington was definitely a different city 50 years ago for a number of reasons. By 1957, it had become the largest majority black city in the country. And for a host of reasons, you know, white flight. But also, D.C. was also an attractive place for African-Americans migrating from the South.

NAYLOR: And from the North. Ella Kelly came to Washington from Harlem, first to study at Howard University, then to live.

ELLA KELLY: It was Southern, and you learned that very quickly. And I don't mean that in a negative way. There were things such as you'd stand at the corner, waiting to take the bus, and little ladies would say good morning, that kind of thing.

NAYLOR: Kelly is a retired public schoolteacher and government worker. She remembers Washington then as a beautiful city, but she remembers ugliness too. There was the time she and her husband looked at an apartment for rent.

KELLY: The manager of the building was an African-American woman. There was a sign outside that said apartment available. We knocked on the front door. She came to the door and she said we don't rent to colored.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: She was a person of color, so my husband and I looked at each other. OK, whatever. We left.

NAYLOR: That kind of segregation was not uncommon in Washington. Paul Kuntzler moved to D.C. from the Detroit area, shortly after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

PAUL KUNTZLER: It was just a very different place then. Yeah. I lived on Capitol Hill and there were only all - there were whites in my neighborhood. The early jobs I had, they only employed whites, you know? It was just all so pervasive part of the culture. Even the gay bars were all white, you know?

NAYLOR: The District in 1963 was very much under the thumb of Congress. There was no home rule. And it would be another four years before Lyndon Johnson appointed the city's first mayor. In the days leading to the march, federal officials were concerned about the possibility of violence. National Guardsmen were posted along the march route, liquor stores were ordered closed, and many businesses, including the one where Paul Kuntzler worked, were shuttered.

KUNTZLER: Because of a fear that there might be riots, President Kennedy declared a virtual state of martial law. As it turned out, it was the most quietest day in Washington. There was virtually no crime at all.

NAYLOR: Ella Kelly was a Red Cross volunteer stationed in a tent near the Lincoln Memorial. She remembers a steamy August day and, on the morning of the 28th, worries over whether anyone at all would show up, but they did, some 200,000 strong.

KELLY: They had all of these signs. People were so well dressed. I thought, how can these women walk down the street in this heat in high-heeled shoes with the gloves and the beautiful dresses?

NAYLOR: Paul Kuntzler says the emotional high point of the day for him was swaying along with the crowd singing "We Shall Overcome." And Ella Kelly, who says she is not given to tears, nonetheless is misty-eyed thinking back 50 years.

KELLY: All of America in their Sunday best protesting something that they thought was unjust. And this was the American way of doing protest.

NAYLOR: It was, she says, breathtaking. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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