On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech that has become a defining moment in American History. Women of Peace Corps Legacy interview founding member Betty Currie about her experience there.
by Katie McSheffrey
Betty Currie‘s long career with Peace Corps began in 1969, after her job at USAID ended. She was initially recruited to work in the Africa Region as the secretary for the regional director. When the newly appointed Peace Corps Director, Joseph Blatchford, needed a secretary, Betty’s talents were already known at the agency. “The job was a crucial one. It had 10,000 people spread out over sixty-eight countries, and I needed a reliable, efficient person,” Blatchford recalls. “I didn’t ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I wasn’t interested because she was so good.” Betty remained with Director Blatchford when he moved to ACTION, the federal agency that ran the Peace Corps, and she subsequently moved up to work for two other agency directors — Michael Balzano and Sam Brown. In 2006, she resumed her relationship with Peace Corps as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
Betty had met John Podesta, who also worked at ACTION, and in the early 1980s he invited her to run the offices of the Mondale and Dukakis Presidential campaigns and to later join the Clinton campaign. After Clinton became president, Betty served as his personal secretary during both of his terms. Betty has remained involved in Democratic politics. An Obama supporter, she is close to the former president’s mother-inlaw, and in a recent conversation told her friend that everyone Betty knew applauded Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.
A summary of the Women of Peace Corps Legacy interview with Betty Currie follows. It has been edited for clarity and concision.
Q: First, let’s talk about your experiences at the March on Washington 57 years ago. How did you get involved in the march?
I’d gone to work that day at the Post Office at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, professionally dressed, ready for a day of hard work, and when I got there, my supervisor said, “What are doing here?” I said, “I have my job to do.” And he said, “You need to join the march so others will get a job!” So, I put on my tennis shoes and quickly ran down Connecticut Avenue to join the thousands of people gathering on the National Mall.
I found a place to sit under a tree between the stage and the end of reflection pool. Others joined me, and I met and talked to strangers who I felt I had a connection with. Together we listened to the most wonderful music by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, singing “How I Got Over.” Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I Had a Hammer.” Then we quietly listened to the speeches that began under the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Q: What are the most memorable things that happened at the March? How would you describe the participants in the March?
I remembering it being a joyful experience, fun even, full of people who were smiling and being kind to one another. The group was very diverse — there were people of all ages and races, gathered together in solidarity. Because it was a workday, people were dressed up in coats and ties and nice dresses. The atmosphere was peaceful, calm, and friendly; I felt safe. It felt like a time of change, and we were all inspired about future possibilities.
The speakers, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, gave rousing speeches, but we had no idea at the time that their words would go down in history. After hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech, I remember thinking, “Well, that was a pretty good speech.” He said we should not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. I thought that was very powerful.
When it was over, thousands of people peacefully left the area and returned to work.
Q: How would you compare this year’s march with the one in 1963?
Fifty-seven years ago, there was a lot of advance publicity about the march. I am not aware of that kind of publicity for today’s march. Ours was very organized with strong leadership, as one would expect with MLK’s people. And it wasn’t during a time of COVID, which will definitely affect turnout this week.
Q: During the march, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism. How well do you feel America has achieved that dream?
We still have a way to go. We were on a good path to racial equality, but we’ve strayed from it in recent years. I hope that we’re back on the path to progress. I feel hopeful.
Q: Now let’s talk about your time with Peace Corps. What brought you to Peace Corps?
Well, I would say it was the grace of God that brought me there. I had worked for USAID and when that time was over, I was asked to interview with the head of the Africa Region of Peace Corps, Walter Carrington. I remember waiting for an interview when a young woman walked in and said, “We need to send this letter to Mauritius,” and I remember thinking, “Is there actually a country Mauritius? Even so, I got the job!”
I was lucky to attend a regional conference in Africa where I was asked to take notes. I guess I did a good job because I was recommended to be the new Peace Corps Director Joseph Blatchford’s special assistant/secretary. I remember after the interview I was told that if I got the job, I would have to either get rid of the afro or the pants suit — I couldn’t keep both. I chose to keep the pants suit.
Q: How did your time at Peace Corps affect your life?
I learned that working in the Peace Corps office could bring great joy. Volunteers returned after two difficult years, full of happiness and hope for their future. It was as if they had gained the knowledge that you could be happy with very few creatures comforts and understood the oneness of mankind. They also came home with a deep appreciation for their life in America and the democracy they enjoyed in the U.S. Meeting them was truly inspirational.
I remember one time when I was asked to host local Peace Corps staff who were visiting from Mauritius, and I was asked us to host them at our home for a real American meal and experience. “What am I going to do?” I thought because I wasn’t much of a cook. So, I called my daughter and told her to cook some spaghetti for our new guests that I would be bringing home. It was quite evident that they couldn’t figure out what we were serving — I guess they’d never had spaghetti before — so we took them to a nearby restaurant that featured good old Southern cooking with ribs and collard greens, and they loved it!
“That was the Peace Corps way. An organization were people care and they let you know. They care about you, what you’re doing and how you’re doing. And that feeling stays with me.
Q: You were at Peace Corps at a time when Nixon wanted to do away with it. What is your memory of that experience?
It’s true — Nixon wanted to do away with Peace Corps. I remember that at one point some Volunteers took over the building in protest. I was on the front lines when Peace Corps was folded into ACTION, something Director Blatchford reluctantly agreed to so that President Nixon would not dissolve the Peace Corps. I know that Blatchford is still criticized for that, but I thought it was a brilliant move because it kept Peace Corps alive.
Q: Finally, let’s talk about the current Black Lives Matter movement. As you know, Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the DMV, a new group affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association, is actively involved in the August 28th march. What advice would you give to young people who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?
First, let me say how much I appreciate the work of Women of Peace Corps Legacy. Your support of women’s empowerment around the world is very admirable.
The Black Lives Matter movement is relatively new, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts. I would say to all young people — and to people of all ages: “Join them, support their efforts, and enjoy every minute!”
To learn more about the March on Washington and the Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization please visit the Black PCV in the DMV website.