50 years after ‘I Have a Dream,’ one Maine man keeps marching

Hugh Magbie has been marching for years.

The 69-year-old Warren resident grew up in Cambridge, Mass., in a family that fought for civil rights.

As a teenager, he marched against nuclear testing. He marched for school integration in Boston. He protested war and militarism by standing with others in front of the Pentagon — an effort made into a film called “The Language of Faces.”

His father, also Hugh Magbie, was a metallurgist and the head of the NAACP in Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother, Anne Magbie, was an artist and a member of the Cambridge Civic Association.

The family was well-educated, outspoken and deeply involved in fighting for, as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, turning the “jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Wednesday, Aug. 28, will mark 50 years since the March on Washington when King spoke those words in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The country isn’t there yet.

This week Magbie continued marching. He wrote an OpEd for the BDN in response to LePage’s reported comments that President Barack Obama “hates white people.”

“He’s expertly playing to his base, a base that wants to go back to Mississippi in the 1950s, not America in 2013,” Magbie wrote.

Hugh Magbie at center.

The comment, leaked by legislators who remain anonymous, is one small example of how the country still divides itself by race. Why not celebrate the differences instead?

“How we respond to it as a community, as a state, as a people, will depend on us and our moral stance,” Magbie said. “It has to do with how we treat each other every day.”

Magbie was a college student during the March on Washington. He stayed home to watch the whole-day event on TV with his mother who was dying of cancer. He remembers jumping up and down and yelling, his mother bundled up in her day bed. She cried during King’s speech. She would die several months later.

“You couldn’t avoid this. This was the first time in history that black people had controlled all the channels. We had something to say to all of America on all the channels,” he said.

They listened to all the speeches. Magbie specially remembers the oration of Georgia’s John Lewis, now a U.S. representative, but “Martin’s speech was what we were all waiting for.”

He paused and laughed. “I don’t even know how to reflect 50 years back on how powerful that speech was,” he said. “It was a time of great change in the United States.”

He remembers the image of togetherness King created when he said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

His own life is one example of that change.

“I have married a white woman, and my children are biracial, and everybody comes to my house, and I go to everyone’s, so in many ways Martin’s dream has been recognized. We have a black president. That has been recognized,” he said.

But racism and race negativism still hang like a weight on black Americans and Mainers.

“A look, a sneer, a stare, getting ignored when you go in to buy something, getting followed when you go into buy something. You’re just always conscious of this f-cking race and what this means to everyone you encounter,” he said.

It will get better as today’s children grow older, as they replace the politicians — and constituents who elect them — whose lips drip, as King said, “with the words of interposition and nullification.”

The dream that one day children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” continues.

“We can’t go back as a nation. We’ve got to confront this, and we’ve got to go forward,” Magbie said. The march goes on.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.