Wayne Nobles could see the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. heading in his direction.
From his perch in the press stands, Nobles had stood captivated just a few minutes earlier as the poetic words of the civil rights leader’s “I Have A Dream” speech echoed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He had heard the shouts of “Amen!” and the wild roar of approval erupting from the sea of nearly 300,000 peaceful demonstrators spread out across the National Mall.
Now with the ceremony coming to an end, King himself had wandered into the crowd to be with his people. As he approached, Nobles jumped down quickly from the press stands, moved in close, pointed his camera and snapped picture after picture.
Nobles’ black-and-white, never-published photos of King, taken 50 years ago at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, show the civil rights leader up close and personal, hands reaching out to the masses, his dream of equality not yet realized but very much alive.
Instead of the serious look usually etched across his face whenever he appeared in public, King is smiling.
“He wanted to be in the crowd,” said Nobles, a retired commercial photographer who lives in Knoxville, Tenn. “You could see it in his face. You could see it in the photographs. He was genuinely happy to be down there with the people. That’s where he was supposed to be.”
Nobles, who was working at the time for a commercial and advertising firm, arrived early for the march that hot August morning in 1963. He wanted to make sure he staked out a good spot to photograph the event.
On the press stand, he had a bird’s-eye view of the Lincoln Memorial and the massive crowd that snaked around the reflecting pool and onto the National Mall.
“I watched the crowd grow and grow and grow,” Nobles said. “Being from Tennessee, I had never seen that many people in my life. Not many people had back in 1963. That was a sight to behold in and of itself.”
Like everyone else there that day, the thing Nobles remembers most is King’s speech — the cadence of his delivery, the poetry and power of his words.
“Dr. King was absolutely mesmerizing, probably the greatest orator this country ever produced,” Nobles said. “The man was just incredible. He never stuttered – not one time. What he said went straight to your heart. You knew what that man was saying was right – it was the right thing to do.
“If you were in his presence, you had to listen to him. You had no choice. He would make you stop and listen.”
The crowd that day – and its response to King – was almost surreal, Nobles said.
“It was like a Cecil B. DeMille movie,” he said. “The technology at the time couldn’t capture that sound – when they would holler and scream and say ‘Amen!’ It was an event. And it was the first of many events to come.”
The company that Nobles was working for never used the photos he shot of King in the crowd after the celebration, so he has kept them in his portfolio for years. He would cross paths with King two other times when he filmed the civil rights leader several years later for documentaries to be shown on television in West Germany.
A King admirer, Nobles, now 72, eventually wants to will his photos from the March on Washington to the King family.
“When you meet great people – and I’ve met some pretty powerful people being in D.C. – they’re not normal,” Nobles said. “These are people who were put here to help us out. And Dr. King, he held up his end of the bargain.”