She had on her Sunday best, as everyone else did.
In her pretty, embroidered dress, done hair and cat-eye glasses, Kathleen Johnson was stretching to see the speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and to snap a better photo of the crowds when — splash! — in she went.
“It was the most embarrassing thing that could’ve happened to me,” Johnson said, describing the day she lost her balance and fell into the National Mall’s reflecting pool.
Hundreds of people watched her fall. Later, the whole nation would see her in that water, because it happened during the March on Washington 50 years ago, and the nearly Biblical photo of an outstretched hand reaching to help lift her out of that deceptively slippery pool was printed in magazines and newspapers across the nation.
“It was slimy, and I kept trying to get up. You think you can get right back up, but you can’t, you just keep slipping back in,” she said, powerfully describing much more than her own struggle in Washington that day.
Johnson, who prefers to describe her age as “upper 70s,” now lives in Laurel, Md., and grew up in New Jersey, where she had a good job at a bank, was married and had two children.
As the civil rights movement unfurled around her in the 1960s, she would talk about it with her best friend, Jean McRae. They were both moms of little kids at the time, neck-deep in child-rearing yet longing to be part of the movement.
For a while, her New Jersey-born husband didn’t quite understand what was happening in the South.
But Johnson knew.
With family in North Carolina, she was familiar with the way the world changed once the train clanked south past Washington, when her family would have to move to the back of the car.
She knew what it was like to be afraid while driving, to be directed to a different and dirty water fountain.
“We were young at the time, but those things stay with you,” she explained.
When she brought her Northern husband to the South, it stayed with him, too.
He never forgot the day they sat down at a drugstore counter to have an egg cream and the entire shop fell into an ominous silence as they sat and sipped quietly, all eyes on them.
They were served in paper cups, rather than glasses, her grandfather later explained. And that meant they were supposed to leave, not sit down and sip.
Johnson’s husband told everyone about it back up North.
When word spread that Dr. Martin Luther King would be in Washington, the Johnsons knew they had to go. The McRaes were in, too.
“We received really negative responses from some of our own relatives and friends when we told them we were going to Washington,” McRae said. “They told us it was a huge mess, and why were we going?
“But that didn’t deter us from planting our feet in Washington that day,” she said.
The relatives, though still grumbling, watched the kids.
“That journey was mixed with emotions of fear, excitement, and we had the determination of the marchers with us,” McRae said.
The day was electric. Everywhere they looked, people had come, dressed in their best. They managed to get a great spot along the water, near the speakers.
When Johnson fell into the reflecting pool, she was mortified. Clinton McRae, Jean McRae’s husband, pulled her up. She smoothed her dress and quickly dried off in the hot August sun.
As soon as she got home, one son said, “Mommy, you fell in the water!” He, too, had seen her picture in the paper.
But her fall, her quiet little struggle to get upright and out, and the silent respect of that huge crowd while all this happened spoke volumes about the solemnity and purpose of that historic day.
“When Dr. King was speaking, you could hear a pin drop,” Johnson said.
Both Johnson’s and McRae’s husbands have died. But the two, their kids and their grandkids will be back in Washington this weekend, hoping to get right back on that spot near the reflecting pool.
There will be joy. All of those kids went on to get great educations; they grew up never having to move to the back of the train. There is an African American president who will speak next Wednesday from the steps where Dr. King once stood.
But it won’t be just an anniversary celebration. The work is not done.
McRae and Johnson will be, a little sadly, passing along the tradition of protest.
“Some of the issues that are happening now are some of the same issues that we marched for 50 years ago,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to be going backwards with this voting situation and jobs. Things have to change to move forward. And we still have work to do.”
Petula Dvorak writes for The Washington Post.