Rita Moreno Recalls Watching Martin Luther King Jr. Improvise 'I Have a Dream' Speech in Person (Exclusive)

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Rita Moreno has been an advocate for diversity and change throughout her career -- she even fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

While promoting One Day at a Time's politically-charged animated special this week, the 88-year-old Oscar winner recalled attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, and watching MLK make his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I was there sitting on the Lincoln monument when Dr. King said, 'I have a dream.' I was there. I remember everything," the West Side Story star told ET's Deidre Behar. "We were sitting literally, no more than 15 feet away from Dr. King. Harry Belafonte put together a Hollywood contingent because he wanted Dr. King to know that there were people in our profession who were very serious and sincere about this whole business."

Moreno recalled how, in the middle of his prepared speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson prompted Dr. King to "tell them about your dream." She remembers seeing him "put away his speech, which was written, and started to talk about, 'I have a dream.'"

"I still can't talk about it without getting these giant goosebumps," Moreno expressed. "It was so exciting and I remember looking [behind] me, where the pool is at the Washington Monument, and there were thousands and thousands of people. Most of them in overalls, who had walked to this event. Some of whom had taken buses. It was just the most."

"And I remember thinking, 'I think this is going to be a very memorable experience, so Rita, don't forget one detail of this,'" she recalled. "I sat next to Sammy Davis Jr., and Harry Belafonte was on my right, and it was the most extraordinary experience I've ever had. That really activated me. That did it. I thought, with this many people, I'm not alone. I'm not alone in my hurt and I'm not alone in my fear and I'm not alone in the belief that this has to change and that I can be one little bitty cog in that machine."

Rita Moreno 1963 MLK Speech
Getty Images

Moreno's willingness to help and make a change also stemmed from her own experiences with racism. As a Latina, as a Puerto Rican, Moreno always had to fight against stereotypical roles and injustices in her profession. Even after becoming part of the EGOT club, winning an Emmy, GRAMMY, Oscar and Tony Award, she still faced discrimination. There was a moment in her 60's, Moreno recalled, when she felt "depressed" and hadn't done a movie in quite some time. After her agent found her a "wonderful part" -- "it was small, but it was really juicy" -- she couldn't wait to audition.

"I worked on that script and I worked every nuance, every word to get it down to what I thought was perfect, as I thought I could do it," she shared. "I went to the audition and the director was there with his minions around him. And I said, 'I can't wait to do this scene for you, because I think I have it. I know what to do with this.' And he said, 'Wonderful,' and he looked at my script and there was a sudden silence and he said -- and he was English -- 'Oooh…No, no, no dear.' He said, 'No, this is not the part we wanted you to try out for. This is a mistake. We wanted you to try out for the part of the Mexican whore house madam.'"

At that moment, Moreno felt mortified. "I hadn't worked now for two years in a movie, three years," she said. "The blood just kind of left my head and settled in a pool around my ankles."

Embarrassed and shocked, she couldn't believe that she was still being stereotyped. "I did not know what to do. I didn't know what face to make, and after the blood came back to my head, I said to him, 'Uh, gee, I'm sorry.' And I was shaking. I was so humiliated. I said, 'I don't do Mexican whore house madams.'"

She ultimately exited the audition, went to her car and "had a one-hour crying session." "It was heartbreaking. This is when I was 60! And I was thinking, I won the Oscar. I won the Emmys... I won, I won, I won. How does this happen?!"

But all she could do was keeping moving forward, she noted. "Keep moving is always what I tell myself, but it still hurts. But that means that some part of me still can't take it," she explained. "Some part of me is still a sissy. And when a part of you is a sissy, you just have to say to that little girl in you that still doesn't believe, go to your room and be brave."

While Moreno has years of experience and countless tales of harassment she's faced in the industry, other stars have recently been opening up about their experiences with racism. Whether it's former Glee star Samantha Marie Ware or Vanderpump Rules' Faith Stowers telling their stories or Skai Jackson exposing racists on social media, the ongoing nationwide demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from George Floyd's fatal arrest is changing the world.

"I don't think we've done a good job of listening," Moreno said of learning from the past. "[The protests are] a good thing, because now we really know where some of our problems lie in this country. I mean, it's no longer a secret."

"I see a lot of non-black faces [protesting]. That's very important. It's important because I don't think -- somehow in the past -- these complaints have been taken as seriously as they should," she expressed, adding, "I feel very excited, because I honestly feel that for the first time, truly the first time, things are going to change…This is going to be different."

For more on Moreno, see below. The One Day at a Time politically-charged animated special airs Tuesday, June 16 at 9:30 p.m. on POP.

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