Retiree witnesses historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech


It was Aug. 23, 1963, in D.C. and it was hot. He was a child standing in a sea of people when he heard a man he didn’t know begin to speak. While he vaguely remembers the beginning of the speech, he clearly recalls the words, “I have a dream …”

Although he was 10 years old at the time, he remembers that day like it was yesterday.

“It was early in the morning about 9 a.m. when we rode yellow buses from church down to Washington D.C. to the Washington Monument,” said Ben Bruce, 56th Fighter Wing Ground Safety manager. “Since I was a child, I was more interested in getting in the reflective pool and climbing up a tree than I was in all the activity. At the Washington Monument they had TV cameras everywhere; they had CBS, NBC and ABC, which were the only three stations we had then.”

It was a long time before Bruce realized it had been a historic moment.

“Around a quarter to noon without anyone saying anything the crowd began to form up and move parallel to the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “As we moved the crowd sang the Civil Rights anthem which was ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We held hands marching toward the Lincoln Memorial.”

After listening to a series of speeches, A. Philip Randolph, leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, introduced the next speaker.

“I recall Randolph saying, ‘Now let me introduce the moral leader of our movement the reverend Dr. King J R,’ referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All of a sudden the crowd went crazy. He started talking and eventually spoke about this dream, and I realized even though I was young, I was at an event that was important.”

While he didn’t know it back then, that speech would positively affect him and many Americans. It came to have meaning as he faced discrimination early in his Air Force career.

“When I came into the Air Force I had a really hard time at first working with people and being part of a team,” Bruce said. “During the first few years of my Air Force career, I saw a problem with race relations. We had riots at Travis Air Force Base in California. Black people had taken over the dining facility.”

In the beginning of his career, there was a program called Social Actions, or what is known today as Military Equal Opportunity, which deals with race relations and equal opportunity.

With time, things got better even though to Bruce it seemed like a never-ending battle.

“Sometimes they put blacks and whites in a room together to figure out why they didn’t like each other and what they could do to solve the problem,” he said. “Early in my Air Force career there were a lot of growing pains with race relations, but over time, as we continued to dialogue, it got better.”

Bruce’s memories have helped form his current perspective on Black History Month and what it means to him.

“Black History Month means a lot to me because it gives black people an opportunity to share our history with others to help them understand the sacrifices and contributions we’ve made in building this country,” Bruce said. “So it’s not an opportunity for black people to celebrate but for everybody, including non-blacks, to learn about what has been done in the black community.”