Fifty years ago, CBC's Knowlton Nash travelled to Washington to cover what would become one of the most historic gatherings of the last century — the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. In this Q&A with his grandson, CBC producer Robert Parker, Nash recalls the silence of the crowd, the power of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, and the civil right struggle.

What were some of the emotions that you were feeling that day?

That particular day, because it was such a memorable speech, you were simply alive with electricity at the moment. It was a very electric moment. And a moment which you want to preserve, but almost you don’t want to soil it ... words count, words are terribly important.

Such as right at the end of the speech, with the repetition of "Free at last, free at last…"?

'God almighty, free at last.'

What was the crowd like?

Silent, as I remember it. It was the repetition. In many ways Martin Luther King was a man of sumptuous use of verbiage. He used words very sparingly, but he used repetition.

Do you remember thinking at the time that it was an unreachable dream?

Well, when I first went to Washington it was an unreachable dream. But it was a dream that was fulfilled far more quickly, and far more rapidly than anyone had expected.


CBC's Knowlton Nash reported on the March on Washington for Newsmagazine in 1963. (Frank Gunn)

In your summation of the TV special you said: "Now with the ceremonies over the question is, was it a success?  Yes, in many ways - a gigantic crowd and no violence and endorsed by President Kennedy.  But how effective will it be in the conscience of Americans and the U.S. congress?"

It didn’t have an immediate impact, but it had a seeping impact — seeping in the sense of being a lasting comment on American society.

It was a tremendous speech, but one which used words sparingly. It was a tremendous speech which has been copied many times over by many people. Most of all it was copied by Lyndon Johnson in an utterly improbable turnabout. Lyndon Johnson was a pragmatic duelist, whereas Martin Luther King was a philosophical warrior.

How do think the climate in the U.S. and Canada compared at the time? Do you think Canadians had a sense of the struggle in the States?

No. I think we pat ourselves on the back too often about that, that we were more understanding and tolerant and decent people. We are tolerant, we are decent people. But we’re not that much better than the Americans. We’re not that much more beatified than Americans.

What was your favourite part of the speech?

The repetition of 'I have a dream' I think was the most remarkable part of the speech, and the one that lasts into eternity.