MLKs ‘Dream’ changed Portland man’s life

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — August 28, 1963 marked what President Obama called “a seminal moment” in the civil rights movement when Dr. Martin Luther King addressed more than 200,000 people at the March on Washington.

It changed the lives of many people, including George Hocker.

Born and raised in Washington, DC, Hocker, then 24, was a grad student who wanted to attend the rally.

“For the first time in my life I felt I wasn’t alone,” Hocker said. “I felt I was part of something much bigger than me.”

He said he lived the first 14 years of his life in a segregated world.

“I had never seen anything like” 200,000 people — black and white, men and women — standing side-by-side.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 (AP Photo)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 (AP Photo)

He told KOIN 6 News Wednesday he was so close to Dr. King he could see the expression on his face. On that day 50 years ago Hocker was “probably within 75 to 100 yards” of the civil rights leader.

“I was thinner then and determined I was going to get as close as I possibly could. So I twisted and turned and wiggled and gently pushed a few people to get as close as I could until we were literally like sardines.”

But he remembered more than the speech that day.

“I remember I stepped on a white man’s foot and he said, ‘Excuse me’ for having his foot under my foot before I could say ‘Excuse me’ for stepping on (his) foot. That’s the kind of air of peacefulness that was there.”

And he vividly remembers that moment, about 11 minutes into Dr. King’s speech, when King went off the script and said the four words that moved history:

“I have a dream.”

“He began to talk extemporaneously and put down his notes,” Hocker said. “The part where he was really talking about us coming together and talking about the children.”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“It became a defining moment in my life,” Hocker said.

The speech led him to a life committed to public service. He worked for the federal government for 34 years. In 1999 he moved to Oregon and served as a minister in his church and now works in Portland Commissioner Nick Fish’s office.

All of this, he said, can be traced back to that splendid late summer day in Washington in 1963.

“It amazes me how powerful the message is, how relevant it is today 50 years later. It’s disappointing in that we have so much work to do. I’m an eternal optimist and I believe we’ll continue to make positive changes.”

In Portland, the Oregon Historical Society is offering a free viewing of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and there is a presidential exhibit, “Windows on America” that begins at 6 p.m.

At 7 p.m., the historical society has a teach-in on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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