Mel Coleman reflects on ’63 March on Washington

WEIRTON – Mel Coleman was about 20 years old when he got on a bus to the nation’s capitol in 1963 seeking a sense of hope after experiencing years of mistreatment as a result of segregation practices in the country.

That trip would lead to Coleman taking part in the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would give what has come to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Coleman, a former teacher and coach at Wintersville and Weirton Madonna high schools, spoke about his experiences Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the march, with Madonna students in Bill Barrett’s history classes.

Coleman explained he wanted to make the trip because of the promise of change. His mother, he said, gave him permission to go only the night before, so he got on a bus in Wheeling early that morning heading to Washington, D.C.

“The march itself did what it was supposed to do,” he said, adding its full effects wouldn’t be known or felt until years later. “It probably has more value today than it did then.”

Coleman said because of the massive crowd in attendance at the Lincoln Memorial, he was too far back to see King during the speech, but could hear the words and see the reaction from the people.

“I could hear the speech, but I couldn’t see it,” Coleman said.

He told the students he wanted to attend the march after experiencing discrimination in his own life, including as a high school basketball player growing up in West Virginia.

In particular, he noted traveling to Huntington to play in a state basketball tournament and not being able to stay in the same hotel as his teammates during his freshman year. In his sophomore year, he was able to stay at the hotel, but wouldn’t be served in the main dining area. He had to eat his meals in a back room, he explained. He also wasn’t permitted to play pool with some of his white teammates.

He would later attend college in Jacksonville, Fla., and during a trip to Fort Lauderdale, found segregated water fountains. Coleman told the students he drank out of the fountain labeled for white people, knowing what would happen if someone were to see him.

“Do you know what? It tastes the same,” he said.

Coleman said he has learned from his experiences over the years, seen many changes take place in the nation, but also challenged the students to look at their lives and experiences to see what progress has been made since 1963.

“My question, 50 years later, is ‘Has it changed?'” he said. “The times have changed, but has the attitude changed?”