Lawrence Cumberbatch was only 16 when he trekked, on foot, from New York City to Washington, D.C., to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Lawrence, now 66, was the youngest person on the march with the Brooklyn branch of the Congress of Racial Equality.
His parents thought two weeks on the open road would be too dangerous for a teenager and made their best effort to dissuade him, Lawrence tells his son, Simeon, 39, at StoryCorps in New York.
"There's always someone in most families that everybody looks to as the authority. And in my case it was my mother's brother, Lloyd," Lawrence says. "So they did the usual, 'Go and see Uncle Lloyd. He wants to talk to you.' They were so sure [that] 'Well, he'll fix this,' " he says, laughing.
But the conversation didn't go quite as Lawrence's parents envisioned. "I discussed it with him, and he says, 'You know, you've thought this out, this makes sense.' So, he told my parents ... " 'I think the boy is OK, so he'll be safe.' And that was it. They followed his advice."
Between Aug. 15 and Aug. 27, 1963, Lawrence and the other members of Brooklyn CORE walked from sunup to sunset each day, he says. "Our diet was eating out of the Coke machines in the gas stations — cheese, crackers with peanut butter — for the whole 13 days, that's all we ate."
The authorities wouldn't allow the group onto the turnpike, Lawrence says, so they walked on U.S. Route 1 instead. And upon reaching Delaware, Lawrence recalls, "they would not let us stop for any purpose. ... They literally put a patrol car behind us and one in front, and they marched us 30 miles until we were out of their jurisdiction."
When they arrived in Washington, the group marched to the demonstration on the National Mall. They were led to the platform, Lawrence says, "and we were right behind King. It was overwhelming.
"People said, 'Well, what did you think about the speech?' I says, 'Nobody who was on that podium was thinking about the speech,' " Lawrence tells Simeon. "It was just so mind-blowing to look at this sea of people. You'll never see this again."
"This was definitely a defining moment," Simeon tells his dad. "I remember when I saw clips of Martin Luther King's speech at Washington, my mother said, 'Your father's right behind him.' It's a proud history, and you — you're a hero of mine."
"Thank you, Sim," Lawrence says. "I am very proud of that."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon with Eve Claxton