Former Colorado judge honors late mother at March On Washington’s 60th anniversary commemoration

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Judge Dianne Briscoe holds a photo of her mother, Ruth C. Denny. Aug. 24, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Judge Dianne Briscoe holds a photo of her mother, Ruth C. Denny. Aug. 24, 2023.

Exhilarating, exciting, and emotional are just a few of the adjectives that retired Denver County Court judge Dianne Briscoe used to describe her recent visit to Washington, D.C. to attend festivities commemorating the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington.

It was a journey six decades in the making, to honor her late mother, civil rights activist Ruth Cousins Denny, who was among the 250,000 people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the original march in 1963.

The one-day event, officially titled “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” is considered a hallmark of the American Civil Rights Movement and widely believed to be the big push behind Congress’ decision to eventually pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The measure made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin illegal in America. The march is also remembered as the event where famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, arguably one of the most famous speeches delivered in American history.

“There were just so many people and so many speakers and things going on; I tried to take in as much as I could, but it was a lot to take in,” Briscoe said of the August 26th event.

Briscoe said she is unsure of the official attendance numbers of the march anniversary event, but she said the National Mall, once again, was packed with thousands of people and she was pleased to see the vast diversity in the crowd.

“There was a spirit of joy, I would say a spirit of love and oneness,” said Briscoe, noting that she made a point to talk to people of different ethnicities while there. “It was just so upbeat and people were cooperating with each other, watching out for each other.”

Judge Dianne Briscoe March Washington
Courtesy Dianne Briscoe
Retired Denver judge Dianne Briscoe with some of the people she met at the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Briscoe said being in the same place where her mother stood was extra special because she’d wanted to attend the original march at the age of 13, but her mother said no because she feared violence would break out at what ultimately was a peaceful event.

“She's with me in spirit and that's what really matters,” Briscoe said of her thoughts during the anniversary event. “That I know, that she's with me in spirit and I know that she knows that I still carry on what she was carrying.”

The more than five-hour anniversary program agenda featured dozens of high-profile speakers who talked about a plethora of civil rights issues, such as systemic racism, hate speech, hate crimes, police brutality, gun violence, poverty, the loss of voting rights and a rollback of reproductive rights, among other social justice topics. King’s son and namesake was among the presenters. 

“So [after the anniversary program ended] we marched to the Martin Luther King monument, and then the King family came up and spoke again,” remembers Briscoe. “They had spoken earlier when we were at the Lincoln Monument, and they spoke again and the Reverend [Al] Sharpton spoke again.”

Briscoe said memories of her mother were top of mind for her throughout the event. Denny, a Black teacher in Denver, was a civil rights activist in her own right. 

“She was the chairperson at one point of the [advocacy organization] Congress of Racial Equality in Denver and [she] helped organize and fundraise for buses to go to the March on Washington in 1963,” said Briscoe. “And she also was an organizer and participant in [successfully] picketing King Soopers, Safeway, Denver Dry Goods, which is now Macy's, and Zone Cab to end discriminatory hiring [practices in the mid 1900s]. And she also worked with the Black teachers about discrimination in the Denver Public Schools.” 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Old newspaper clippings and photos that Judge Dianne Briscoe saved, most of which have to do with her mother, Ruth C. Denny. Aug. 24, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Judge Dianne Briscoe holds a photo of her mother, Ruth C. Denny (second from left), with James Baldwin and James and Alice Reynolds, taken in the early 1960s. Aug. 24, 2023.

Denny received numerous accolades for her work, including being inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2022.

Briscoe said her mother had dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but did not feel that was feasible or attainable as a Black woman during her time. Her mother’s aspirations inspired her own decision to pursue a career in law, first as a lawyer and later as a judge appointed in 2011 by then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. She retired in 2019. Prior to that, Briscoe worked as an assistant city attorney for the Denver City Attorney’s Office and as legal counsel in the Colorado Job Training Office.

Briscoe said the march anniversary festivities exceeded her expectations and reignited her passion to get involved in more social justice issues. It also sparked her desire to complete a book she has been writing about her mother and to work harder at sharing her legacy of fighting for justice in Colorado is never forgotten.

“I think she felt that people weren't aware of all the hard work that she put in and how she dedicated her life to equality and social justice issues,” said Briscoe. “So, I'm still working on [honoring her]. I'm trying to make sure that I fulfill my promise to her that she would not be forgotten and the work that she did would not be forgotten.”