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Bob Haisman was a 17-year-old high school grad in the summer of 1963.
Growing up in a union family, his summer job that year was working in the AFL-CIO's Chicago headquarters. Haisman saw a flier on the wall about a bus trip to Washington D.C. to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Haisman wasn't intending to go until seeing the flier.
"I was going partly as a lark and partly to support my union," Haisman, 67, recalled.
It was a 19-hour bus ride, he recalls. So many people were there that day. Hanging in the crowd, away from the main stage near the Lincoln Memorial, Haisman could barely hear the event's speakers over the sound system. He was listening but not closely, until someone caught his ear.
"It was his voice," Haisman said. "That speech. It was his voice and the crowd's reaction. I remember they had a series of speakers. The sound system was not all that good. They had speakers all morning. But that voice, King's voice, it just got people's attention and they started to listen."
He said that speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — now known as I Have a Dream — changed his life.
Haisman, who lives in Oak Park, wasn't intending to go to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week, but his wife urged him to go, even booking his ticket. He flew to D.C. on Tuesday, going alone this time. The trip back in '63 was his first visit to D.C. He's been back plenty of times because of his union work. Haisman said he was going mainly to hear Barack Obama, who's among the planned speakers marking the 50th anniversary.
The activities conclude today, with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also scheduled to speak.
The '63 March on Washington was one of the pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement. The 50th anniversary has drawn thousands, according to early estimates. The '63 march attracted more than 250,000.
Haisman said he knew who Dr. King was at the time, and his talk of humanity and unity moved him. A half-century later, he still gets emotional.
"At the time, it just made all the sense in the world to me," Haisman said, his voice cracking while fighting back tears. "How in the world can anyone not make the connection of that common truth? I had no expectation in going. I didn't go with the idea of hearing Martin Luther King. I understood he was a powerful voice for black America, and for all of America. Maybe I expected to hear a more radical or defensive appeal. But the context of what he said was easy enough for a 17-year-old kid like me to understand."
Tolerance vs. intolerance
Haisman is a native of Berwyn and lived near Cicero — areas, he says, not known for enlightened views on civil rights. His mother, Millie, and his grandparents are Cicero natives. His father, Louis, was a union activist, working for Sunbeam Corporation. Haisman attended Berwyn's Morton West High School. He remembers when King came to Chicago in 1966, joining other civil rights leaders here fighting for fair housing.
Contrary to popular belief, King never marched in Cicero. Though one was planned, it never occurred. King and other leaders did march in Marquette Park, where he was struck in the head with a rock.
"I hate to reflect badly on the community I grew up in, or on my parents or my parents' friends, but Berwyn and Cicero were not hotbeds of racial tolerance or liberalism," Haisman said.
Back then, Cicero was a hotbed for racial intolerance.
In June 1951, thousands of Cicero residents attacked an apartment building after a black family moved in. The melee lasted several nights. The family escaped but not before the building was firebombed and pelted with rocks from residents, including women and youth. Haisman remembers that riot.
But despite such feelings, Haisman says, he never picked up those biases. In fact, he had a different view about race relations even prior to hearing King's speech.
"My seventh-grade class was learning about the Declaration of Independence. I was 13 years old and I read the beginning, that all men are created equal. And that just summed it up for me," Haisman recalled. "It was settled, philosophically, for me. There was no argument there. I guess I was a receptive audience."
Haisman recalls that his parents were more tolerant than others, but they warned him not to make himself "too much of a target" because of his views. He also credits his Catholic School teacher, Father Tim, for teaching him about racial tolerance and Dr. King.
"My Catholic Church youth group read King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the pastor got in trouble. Some parents asked why was this letter read and why was this being discussed. But I always say that he represented the best of the Catholic Church. He took these working-class kids and kind of opened our eyes."
Haisman would become a teacher himself. He taught several subjects, including history, at Hinsdale South High School, before retiring after 35 years in 2000. He was also a union leader during those years, serving as president of the Illinois Education Association from 1993-1999. Haisman took a leave of absence from teaching while serving as president, working primarily in Springfield, lobbying lawmakers.
One lawmaker in particular caught his eye.
"I was assigned to this freshman senator, who seemed to tower over the rest of the state senate," Haisman said of a young Barack Obama.
"I had to lobby him on education issues and why he should support this or that bill. But instead of doing what most politicians would do — which is say, without flinching, 'Yes, I'll support it.' — he would ask, 'Why should I support it? Tell me what's good about this bill.' He made sure you knew your issue and what you were talking about."
After retiring, Haisman was pretty much done with politics and social activism, tending instead to his garden — he's always loved gardening. But during the George W. Bush years, he decided again to get involved again. "I kissed my roses goodbye and got back into politics," he said.
He volunteered for Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. In 2007, he was in Springfield when Obama announced his candidacy for president, later volunteering on the 2008 campaign. He also campaigned for Obama in 2012. Haisman is currently involved with Organizing for Action, the offshoot of Obama's successful campaign organization.
"That's a big part of why I'm going," he said. "I want to go hear my president speak."