The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The date marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
It was organized by A. Philip Randolph, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis and Bayard Rustin.
It was attended by over:
Aug. 28, 1963, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. focused the nation’s conscience with an unforgettable speech, was also a day set to music, in songs designed to reach the hearts and minds of a segregated nation. Read more »
Aug. 28, 1963, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. focused the nation's conscience with an unforgettable speech, was also a day set to music, in songs designed to reach the hearts and minds of a segregated nation.
The sense of collective purpose contained in the day's music and speeches already had deep roots in American history. That is, the march was a milepost along the road of American protest music, but neither its beginning nor end, as seen recently in Raleigh, N.C.
During summer 2013 marches to the North Carolina General Assembly, just as at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, protesters echoed the Depression-era coal miners' call: "Which side are you on? Which side are you on?"
Indeed, Jackson gets credit in some accounts for inspiring King to shift from his planned speech to a refrain she'd heard him use before: "I have a dream." The speech itself combined musicality, chant and rhythmic emphasis to singe the political climate with its cry for justice.
"The Freedom Songs have caught on because music speaks a language to individual souls that cannot always be expressed by the spoken word," Jackson wrote in an article called "Singing of Good Times and Freedom." "There is something about music that is so penetrating that your soul gets the message."
By 1963, Americans had been making political statements in song for two centuries. Even before the nation was formed, rowdy colonials turned British patriotic songs and dance tunes into parodies that protested foreign rule.
In the more modern era, mill workers in the Carolinas protested horrific working conditions with tunes such as Dave McCarn's "Cotton Mill Colic." Its refrain: "I'm going to starve, everybody will, 'cause you can't make a living at a cotton mill."
As the colonials set their plaints to familiar music, the quintessential American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, made free use of traditional country tunes as he churned out hundreds of songs, some playful, some bitterly sad, and some both populist and patriotic, as in "This Land Is Your Land."
Appalachian coal miners' fight to unionize also produced songs as a means to rally and unify workers who had to fight owners' armed corps. Florence Reece, a miner's wife, composed a song that has inspired marchers from the 1930s to the present with its undying question: "Which side are you on?"
"They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there/You'll either be a union man/Or a thug for J. H. Blair," Reece sang of the 1930s conflict between workers and mine owner Blair.
Through the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Guthrie's tunes, labor songs and black gospel music formed the basis of the political side of the folk-music boom. Acts such as the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary combined sometimes watered-down traditional music with topical lyrics to create a successful commercial formula.
When Dylan elevated some of that music to artful song, it helped boost him to stardom. Dylan turned away from the label "protest singer" even though he occasionally returned to topical music with such songs as "George Jackson" and "Hurricane," and even appeared on the mega-star "We Are the World" fundraiser in 1985, an effort to help strife-ridden Africa.
Indeed, much of politically-focused musical energy since George Harrison's 1971 "Concert for Bangladesh" has centered on such massive, message-derived concerts as No Nukes, Band Aid, LiveAid, Farm Aid and the like.
Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. involvement in the Middle East brought forth a number of protest songs from the right side of the political spectrum. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and Charlie Daniels' "Still in Saigon" gave conservatives something to play at rallies. The September 2001 bombings brought forth more patriotic anthems as a nation united against terrorism.
Meanwhile, performers such as Pete Seeger, who learned his craft from Woody Guthrie, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the late Hazel Dickens continued for decades to deliver left-leaning messages along with their music.
In North Carolina, when opposition mounted against the Republican-dominated legislature and governor elected in 2012, a King-inspired pastor, the Rev. William Barber, joined with others in starting a series of "Moral Monday" marches to the General Assembly. With arrests of marchers passing 700 in July, the protests have gained national attention, although Republican leaders claim the marchers represent only a small segment of voters. GOP leaders say they are following the agenda that got them elected.
Seemingly undeterred, the marchers show up week after week to enter the General Assembly, make speeches and sing, with the knowledge some will be arrested for failing to obey police orders to disperse. A group of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh musicians entered a recording studio in July to record newly written songs as fodder for the marchers.
But when challenges to power turn to song, some numbers surface time and again. Among the perennial numbers on Moral Mondays? The Kentucky coal miners' anthem, "Which Side Are You On?"
“What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?” Read more »
“What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?”
That question appears on the first page of Black Like Me, a book whose publication in October 1961 caused a storm of controversy and helped accelerate the civil rights movement. The book’s author, a white Texan, felt that the only way to answer his question was to change his color and live, temporarily, as a black man. John Howard Griffin did so by using pigment-altering medication and sun lamps.
In six weeks of travel through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia as a black man, he experienced racism in its most raw form, from being denied the use of “white” restrooms to finding shelter or a ride on a bus. Griffin was often taken aback by what he called “the hate stare” by whites who treated him with contempt simply because of his color.
Black Like Me sold more than a million copies in the United States, was translated into 14 languages and turned into a movie. As America marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a pivotal event in the struggle to end segregation, the book merits re-reading – not only as a lesson in how much has changed since the 1960s but also as food for thought on the persistence of discrimination.
Few of the scenes of outright white hostility Griffin described in his book would be imaginable today. And at the time, not even the most wildly optimistic civil rights campaigner would have predicted that one day the United States would have a black president.
But racial stereotyping has proved resistant. Then, and now, black Americans and white Americans have starkly different views on how much of a role race plays in how people are treated.
To hear experts on race relations – one of the most complex and vexing issues in America – tell it, the reason for different perceptions of discrimination is simple: most blacks (and Latinos) have had personal experience of racist prejudice. Most whites have not and cannot, short of following Griffin’s example and changing their skin.
Different views on discrimination against African-Americans come through in poll after poll. So do different interpretations of events in which race plays a role. Take Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August 2005 and killed at least 1,800 people. A Gallup poll taken a month later showed that six out of 10 black respondents thought the government was slow in rescuing people stranded in the flooded city because most of its residents were black. Only one in eight whites shared that view.
Take the sensational trial of O.J. Simpson, the black football star accused of murdering his white girlfriend and an acquaintance of hers in 1994. The jury found him not guilty and the reaction to the verdict, broadcast on live television, graphically illustrated the black-white perception gulf. Blacks cheered, whites looked shocked. A poll taken 10 years later showed that 87 percent of whites thought him guilty, compared with 29 percent of blacks.
More recently, there were equally sharp divisions on the case of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot dead in February 2012 by a white neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, who went on trial in June on murder charges. Most blacks believe, polls show, that racial bias was a key factor in the events leading to the shooting. Most whites don’t think so.
Similarly conflicting views persist on equal opportunity in the job market, on education, housing and treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. Statistics show that this is not merely a matter of perceptions.
A report in June by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, spoke volumes about discrimination that has changed in tone but not much in substance. “Fewer minorities today may be getting the door slammed into their faces but we continue to see evidence of housing discrimination that can limit a family’s housing, economic and educational opportunities,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said.
The survey, conducted every 10 years, looked at 28 cities across the country and found that real estate agents showed minority families fewer homes than white families and quoted them higher costs and security deposits.
The numbers that most starkly highlight the lack of equal treatment come from the enforcement of drug laws. African-Americans account for about 12 percent of the population, roughly a third of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates — although blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at roughly equivalent rates.
Fifty years ago, when a quarter of a million people packed the National Mall at the end of a march to press for civil rights and equal justice, Martin Luther King told them in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.”
How far the United States still is from the end will long remain subject of debate.Hide
Technology can be a game-changer when it comes to organizing protests against perceived political or economic injustice. Read more »
Technology can be a game-changer when it comes to organizing protests against perceived political or economic injustice. One of the more startling images of the mid-1990s was of a masked ‘Subcomandante Marcos,’ a leader of a rebel movement protesting the Mexican government’s treatment of native peoples in the state of Chiapas. Marcos, a nom de guerre for Rafael Guillén Vicente, was seen in images distributed via the Internet, well armed and wearing not only a clip of ammunition but what appeared to be a satellite phone strapped to his chest.
These days the phones have shrunk and turned into all-purpose devices that can do everything from snapping photographs to sending email and connecting to social networks worldwide. When the march on Washington occurred in the summer of 1963, this huge rally in support of civil rights for African Americans was organized by a large coalition of groups working the tools of their time. That top-down approach today seems deeply anachronistic, as groups of many political persuasions, from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party movement, rely on social networking to coordinate their activities and keep the public informed of their rallies.
Some people were talking about a ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Iran that might topple the government. That revolution didn’t happen, but the so-called Arab Spring was still making waves, fueled in the case of Egypt as much by Facebook as by Twitter. Sharing video and texts meant that a version of events could unfold in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that was outside the control of the government’s media outlets. Although a surprisingly small percentage of Egyptians had Internet access during the events of 2010-2011 (approximately 26 percent), it was enough to bring about a massive protest in Cairo on January 25, 2011 that was organized on Facebook, with more than 90,000 Egyptians signing up for the Facebook page that laid out the details of the gathering.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Tahrir Square that day (notably, the Muslim Brotherhood sat the protest out), a gathering large enough to drive home the power of distributed technology to the Egyptian government. Mubarak would go on to shut down not only certain Internet sites but also the telephone networks, and for a brief time, all Internet access. The blackout of information proved ineffective. Social media had already allowed ready communications between protest leaders and despite all efforts to slow their spread, would prove enormously consequential on the world stage in defeating government censorship.
That’s because there is a broader effect in play when social tools like these are used. In both Iran and Egypt, many people turned out for protest gatherings who lacked Internet access -- indeed, some studies show that Twitter links in these uprisings tended to be clicked primarily by people outside the country, so that in addition to being an organizing tool for dissidents, the Internet became a broadcast tool that could show and share precisely those things local governments did not want seen. Egypt’s protests swelled after the Internet was largely shut down as the world’s view of censorship in action brought pressure to bear from governments far and wide.
We could look upon all of this as a new phenomenon, but it’s actually the manifestation in our digital age of a transformative power of technology that has been demonstrated often before. Gutenberg’s printing press could produce copies of religious tracts of all persuasions, but it was the savvy writers of a rising Protestantism that began producing unauthorized Biblical translations and literature that attacked the entrenched power of Rome. The key fact: We can’t predict where any one technology will take us, but whatever enhances the movement of ideas between people can foment new ways of thinking and spur calls for change. What counts is who has enough vision to take maximum advantage of the new prospects technology offers.
In our era, bypassing the broadcast media is getting to be old hat now that carrying a smartphone is becoming the norm. The movement calling itself Occupy Wall Street could emerge without any clear ‘leaders’ because, unlike the Civil Rights movement of Dr. King’s day, it thrived on real-time connectivity that was shared among social media contacts rather than broadcast by centralized media. Critiques from those outside the traditional structures of power thrive and multiply with this kind of fertilization, which is why we’ll see more of them in the future. The next Twitter or Facebook? We can’t know, for technology inevitably leads to the unexpected.Hide
In 1963 I was a 16-year old high school student, and an active member of CORE in Washington, DC. Read more »
In 1963 I was a 16-year old high school student, and an active member of CORE in Washington, DC. I thought it outrageous that blacks and whites didn’t have the same rights and that the District had NO home rule, no elected officials at all, and was “represented” in Congress by white bigots from the South.
I got started in politics as a member of High School Students for Better Education, which lobbied Congress not to cut our school budget! When the Civil Rights movement heated up, I was eager to get involved. As a minor, I wasn’t allowed to sit-in or Freedom ride, but I passed out literature, picketed, and marched and sang at demonstrations with the adults. Since my parents were divorced, I was required to spend summers with my father and his second wife on Long Island, NY. When Dad learned that I was planning to take the CORE bus to Washington from Port Authority for the Big March on August 28th, he said, “No daughter of mine is going to be involved in any race riot!”
I told him it wasn't going to be a race riot, just a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. When he found that I was determined to go, he decided to drive me to D.C. himself rather than let me take the bus. So, the two of us drove down in Dad’s little red convertible. It was quite a sight to see the river of buses going down the NJ turnpike, all with Civil Rights banners on their sides. Dad found a parking place on the tidal basin near the Lincoln Memorial, and we joined the march at the very end. I took a sign from the CORE people who were handing them out, but Dad wasn’t satisfied. He said, “I’ll make my own sign.” He turned a sign over, and on the blank side, drew two headstones, one white and the other black with “R.I.P.” on them, put an equal sign between them, and wrote underneath, “Why wait?” Dad was a career naval officer; he had been in WWII and Korea in the Seabees, so had seen a lot of death, although he never talked about it. I guess he thought death the great equalizer. (Dad died in 1995 and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.)
In 1964, I joined the sit-in at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ to request that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party representatives be seated instead of the regular Mississippi delegation, who were all Dixicrats. Currently I am an elected Democratic Committee Woman here in Piscataway, NJ. supporting Barbara Buono for Governor.
In 1963 I felt a mixture of hope, worry and determination. We had lost Medgar Evers that June, and violence was escalating against Civil Rights workers in the South. There were good reasons to be afraid that we might be attacked by the police or bigots at the march. There had been talk of shutting D.C. down with sit-ins to get the Kennedy administration to protect our people. Jack Kennedy wanted us to be patient and content with gradual integration, which he hoped would avoid more violence. But we knew that the KKK and the White Citizens Councils wouldn’t give up their power unless forced to, and we were not willing to be patient in the face of massive injustices. So, we decided to all go to Washington to show our solidarity, unity and determination. And it worked! We got the Civil Rights Act passed the next year, and the Voting Rights Act passed the year after that. We got Federal Marshalls to protect demonstrators in the South desegregating Jim Crow establishments.
We spoke truth to power and got power to do the right thing. I went back to D.C. for President Obama’s first inauguration. There must have been a million people there! I’ve never been in such a happy crowd before or since. We all rejoiced that what had seemed impossible in 1963 had actually happened — America had elected a black President. Being a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement is the one thing in my life that I can look back on with satisfaction and gratitude, because despite all the work still to be done and all the suffering that remains, we accomplished a good deal to make America more of what it should be — a land of freedom and justice for all.Hide
My parents and my aunt and uncle attended the 1963 March and are attending the anniversary march on the 24th. My aunt, Kathleen Johnson, is the one being helped out of the reflecting pool by my dad.
My mother drove into Washington from our house in suburban Alexandria the first day of the March on Washington, 1963. Read more »
My mother drove into Washington from our house in suburban Alexandria the first day of the March on Washington, 1963. She approached folks and told them she would be happy to wash and iron their clothes and return the clean, pressed clothes the following day. Folks were reluctant to part with their clothes. No one could figure out how they would meet up again. She finally got a few takers.
I am guessing she was shy and a little scared about attending the March. Our family had just moved to Alexandria from Little Rock, Arkansas. The hostility she witnessed at the integration of Central High School, the violence the Freedom Riders encountered changed her and shaped her views on race in America. At the time, she was a stay-at-home-mother with four young children and probably felt she had little to offer the civil rights movement. This story tells me how determined she was to participate and offer her help in a small, humble way. Her best friend just shared this story with me.
The coverage of the anniversary of the March on Washington triggered the recollection. I’m proud of my mother. Her name was Barbara Long. She taught English (including Black American Literature) at Fort Hunt high School in Alexandria Virginia. She passed away in 1976.Hide
“The people that I met, the words that I heard and the opportunity that I had to serve and give back to others will be part of me forever.”
I was a pastor in Storrs, Ct. A friend in my church asked me to go with him to the March. I hesitated, as it seemed a rather scary thing to do. Read more »
I was a pastor in Storrs, Ct. A friend in my church asked me to go with him to the march. I hesitated, as it seemed a rather scary thing to do.
We took the train to D.C., went on the march and came back the same day. It changed my life. Some friends and I started a local human rights council. I was committed from then on to finding ways to be more ethnically and racially inclusive in all ways possible.
Even today, at age 81, I talked with elementary classes at the local school about my experience. WHAT A TIME THAT WAS!!!Hide
“It was the most awesome thing I had ever heard. I can still hear his voice, 50 years later.”
The civil rights march of August 28, 1963, was the culmination of an enormous planning and mobilization effort by a coalition of civil rights leaders and organizations that did not always work and plan together, but chose to cooperate for that major event. Read more »
The civil rights march of August 28, 1963, was the culmination of an enormous planning and mobilization effort by a coalition of civil rights leaders and organizations that did not always work and plan together, but chose to cooperate for that major event. The primary motivator and leader was A. Philip Randolph, the long-time president of a predominantly black labor union.
In addition to Randolph, the planners and organizers included James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. Bayard Rustin, a veteran of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and one of the oldsters at age 51, was the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts organizer. Martin Luther King Jr. did not play any greater role than any of the other men (and they were all men).
They worked closely with the heads of several national church denominations and labor unions on raising money as well as on recruitment and mobilization of march participants. It was one of the first times that white people who were nationally-recognized leaders played a secondary role to African-Americans on a major event.
In 1963 African-Americans (“Negroes” in the parlance of the time) faced significant discrimination in numerous areas of daily life, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” institutions and facilities unconstitutional nine years earlier.
It may be difficult to recall now, but open racial discrimination was practiced in all parts of society, especially in employment and housing. Election officials in many states routinely disenfranchised African-Americans by using discriminatory and selective measures to prevent them from registering and voting. Laws requiring equal access to public accommodations – hotels, restaurants, buses, theaters and so forth – were quite weak.
The organizing message of the march was the call for new laws to assure the basic rights of African-Americans and to protect them from discrimination in key areas – jobs, housing, public accommodations and voting – as well as in other components of daily life.
As the designated date for the march approached, most white people in D.C. became apprehensive and frightened about it. I think there were two interrelated reasons for their fears: the unknown impact of thousands of black people arriving from out of town, and violence that they expected would surely come, whether from marchers or police or both.
I was 22 years old, had recently finished my first year at Yale Divinity School, and was looking forward to returning for my second year. (Back then most academic institutions started their fall term in mid-September.) I was living with my parents in the Washington D.C. suburbs and working for a federal agency in a paid summer internship.
The day of the march, August 28, was a Wednesday. As a work day, it presented a variety of challenges to the D.C. police as well as the city’s commuters. (Things have certainly changed. Almost every major demonstration is now held on a weekend day, in order to minimize loss of work time for participants and thus swell the crowd.)
Having already made a strong personal commitment to the struggle for civil rights, I was greatly excited about the march and deeply wanted to attend. However, as a summer employee I was not entitled to take the day off, and I didn’t want to risk losing the job by skipping out on work. So I expected to be stuck in the office all day and hear about the march that evening.
I had been riding to work each day in a carpool with several others who worked for various government agencies and lived near me. All of them were, like me, white, because D.C. and its suburbs were still severely segregated in those days. Every one of them decided to take the entire day off because they were afraid of going downtown, so the carpool did not function on August 28.
Thus I rode to work with my parents, even though their places of employment were not especially close to mine. Given the uncertainties of the day, we left home quite early, allowing lots of extra time for the commute. Imagine our surprise to breeze into town quickly on near-empty streets, because thousands had stayed at home out of fear. I felt pangs of jealousy as my parents spoke of how they hoped to take several hours off from their jobs in order to attend the march.
At my office only one other person was there from a staff of about 20, and that person had little direct connection to my assignments. All my other work colleagues chose the same option as my carpool members: take a vacation day and stay home.
I did some work during the morning hours, wishing I could leave, and the one other person there took little notice of me. So in the early afternoon I decided to leave and go to the march. Yes, I admit it now – I skipped out. I was away from my government job for half a day, even though I was not entitled to any vacation time.
As I walked the fifteen or twenty blocks from my office toward the march mobilization point by the Washington Monument, I noted how empty and quiet the streets were – until I got close, and then I saw that they were getting more and more jammed with throngs of people going the same way I was going.
My chief memory of the day is of tens of thousands of friendly, excited folks, black and white, eager to be part of a history-making statement for civil rights. We marched down Constitution Avenue and then bunched in close together around the Lincoln Memorial in order to hear and see the speakers and musicians. I don’t remember many specifics from the program, but I do recall Peter, Paul and Mary singing “If I Had a Hammer.”
White residents of the D.C. area were not the only folks apprehensive about what might happen. Many marchers were also concerned about the potential for violence, which could not only bring harm to individuals but also to the overall cause. The recent history of civil rights protests and mobilizations had included a great deal of violence, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, Mississippi chairman of the NAACP, just two months prior to the march. In the days leading up to the march, the media reported many rumors and shadowy threats of violence against the marchers. But still the marchers came, from near and far, by the thousands and tens of thousands, ignoring their apprehension and holding their heads high.
The weather was brutally hot, and little shade was available around the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial, but the crowd stayed for hours. In those days we did not have the ubiquitous bottles of water that are now part of everyday life, and few people had brought something to drink. But for most people the parched and dry feeling in their bodies was more than offset by the excitement and enthusiasm of the occasion. I myself felt such a flood of joy that I mostly forgot how hot the weather was.
Some marchers did falter in the heat. One person who was there, but not with me, later told me that she felt that she was about to faint, and wasn’t sure what might happen to her if she fainted in the tightly-bunched crowd. But in an instant she felt both her elbows supported by strangers who then gently lowered her to the ground as the crowd cleared a space. After resting for a while, she felt better, got back up, and continued to appreciate the remarkable day.
The fears of violence were totally misplaced. There was no violence, none. From a law enforcement perspective, nothing happened other than a large, peaceful demonstration. It was an odd news report that evening – there was no violence in downtown D.C.
Many pundits and observers expected the march turnout to be small, and even some of the planners were privately worried about that outcome, but it was actually huge. U.S. government officials estimated the crowd at 250,000 people, while others thought the number was much higher. Without question it was one of the largest marches in the U.S. for any purpose up to that time.
As we look back on the march from the perspective of fifty years, it is easy to forget how controversial it was. Many white Americans hated the idea that blacks might achieve a full range of civil rights and have equal access to jobs, housing, hotels and voting booths. Opponents of civil rights vowed to make their opposition visible and powerful, blocking any movement toward the goals that the marchers sought. Just two-and-a-half weeks later a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four little girls.
I believe that one of the most important learnings for today from that event fifty years ago is that we need to take risks in order to make constructive change. The march organizers took significant risks and so did many of the participants, but they were deeply convinced that those risks were appropriate and necessary.
Another learning is that positive change does happen, often because we take the right risks. The march provided a significant foundation for major new civil rights and voting rights laws passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
We have made real progress toward fulfilling the dream of which Dr. King spoke that day. We are not where we should be. But the changes are large, permanent and real. Denial of civil rights is still a reality and discrimination persists, but on a minuscule scale compared to fifty years ago. As Dr. King said on another occasion, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and we have witnessed some of that bending in our lifetimes.Hide
“What I remember is just walking down the avenue with thousands of people. The sense of unity. You know it was black and white. It was just an amazing experience.”
Soon after graduating from college, I was privileged to be able to participate in an event that shaped and animated my life forever thereafter. Read more »
Soon after graduating from college, I was privileged to be able to participate in an event that shaped and animated my life forever thereafter. Five decades ago this year, I participated in the March on Washington. In the old photos of the massive crowd around the Reflecting Pool in Washington, I’m one of the specks on the left of the pool, when viewed from the Lincoln Memorial. In honor of the 50th anniversary this year, here are my recollections of that memorable day.
As I shuffled off sleepily in the predawn hours, it seemed a lonely, quixotic thing to do. My parents humored me, but it was clear they thought their 22-year-old son probably had more productive ways to spend a late summer day.
By that evening, the day’s events were already being read as an epochal moment in U.S. history.
“The need to register our convictions was more potent than the expectation that anyone was listening,” is so closely identified with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that they seem like synonymous phenomena, and indeed the Rev. King’s words crystallized a movement and a moment as few other speeches in history have. From my foot soldier’s perspective, that eloquent vision was the emotional high point of the day, but in the end it was The March, not The Speech, that spoke loudest.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Aug. 28, 1963, accompanied by a college friend, I boarded a chartered bus on Long Island as a gesture of personal support for the civil rights movement that I knew mostly from newspapers and television news reports. The movement was primarily a Southern phenomenon at the time — sit-ins, bus boycotts and other demonstrations against maddeningly unjust and unconscionable local laws and practices. We were hoping to nationalize the movement, to spur the federal government to pass an array of civil rights and worker rights legislation that would at last put the full force of the government behind our national, moral and constitutional ideals.
This one-day roundtrip to Washington seemed to me at the time an important but probably futile exercise in moral witness. Few people in my circle of friends could see the point of it. And on the deserted streets of suburban, white, upper-middle-class Great Neck, N.Y., on that morning 50 years ago, the need to register our convictions was more potent than the expectation that anyone was listening. Like the other sleepy stragglers trudging aboard the bus, I just wanted to be counted.
It’s hard to propel oneself back into a historical moment – our views are inevitably colored by subsequent events – but let us try to recall that there had never been anything like the March on Washington; there was no model. Even the organizers struggled to characterize it. The marchers’ manual said, lamely, “The March on Washington projects a new concept of lobbying.” We have witnessed many massive marches in Washington in the intervening years – most notably anti-Vietnam war, pro-choice, gay-rights and Million Man marches. Although the 1963 gathering was formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to us then it was known – and it still is – as The March on Washington.
People from hamlets and cities around the country converged on Washington, clogging the highways in every direction, with common grievances and common convictions, determined to grab the attention of a government that didn’t seem to be taking seriously the moral outrage that I and so many others felt through my teenage years. The participants were of all races, regions, ages, religions and economic circumstances. Although many brave and principled people from the North had gone south to help topple the barriers erected by racism, the two cultures had not previously joined at a rest stop on the pike, we began to sense for the first time the unfathomable dimensions of our pilgrimage, ” in massive numbers to mingle, express their common convictions and demand redress – and certainly not in the nation’s capital.
We did not know what to expect at the other end of our journey, and the first leg of the trip was hardly notable – one bus heading west and then south, on empty roads long before the morning commute. So it was with astonishment and a rush of collective excitement that I can feel to this day that, in the predawn half-light approaching the nearly deserted Holland Tunnel crossing to New Jersey, we spotted – several tollbooths away – a bus adorned with a banner that read, “Harlem CORE Marches on Washington.”
Another bus going to the same place! It was a stunning coincidence, a heartening confirmation of solidarity. We opened the windows and cheered and waved in the direction of the other bus.
On the turnpike, we soon spotted other buses – one here, one there, then clusters of them, some riding in tandem like families of motorized behemoths. At a rest stop on the pike, we began to sense for the first time the unfathomable dimensions of our pilgrimage: There were parked buses as far as one could see, endless rows of them spilling off the paved parking lot far out onto the grass apron. Temporary loudspeakers crackled out the names of groups as their buses were ready to depart. By the time we approached the outskirts of Washington, the highway appeared to be nothing but buses.
Entering the capital, we passed through some of the city’s poorest African American neighborhoods. The unbroken line of silver buses bedecked with banners seemed at times to overwhelm the shabby houses we passed that morning, but in front of those houses was a welcoming committee more moving than any tickertape parade. Local African American residents – children in front, adults behind them, many dressed in white shirts and Sunday suits – stretched in seemingly unbroken lines for miles, looking up and applauding each and every one of the thousands of buses that wheezed and snorted past them.
There were no words in our vocabulary to describe the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. It stretched beyond our field of vision in every direction. We had gone there to be counted, but there were far too many to count on that sweltering August day. Some said there were a quarter of a million people; some said a million. It made little difference – there were clearly far more people than had ever done this before, and far more than the “over 100,000″ that organizers had ambitiously heralded in advance. With no previous historical markers by which to measure such events, the imagination could not wrap fully around what few facts were available.
Nor was there any sense of racial differences in that sea of like-minded people. To this day, I cannot give even the wildest estimate of the racial proportions of the crowd; I simply didn’t notice — in itself a notable fact in that especially race-conscious era. I was overwhelmed by a joyous utopian vision of a world I had never inhabited. Martin Luther King articulated the dream, but down below in the crowd, we experienced it.
It was happening on the streets of Washington. It could happen anywhere, anytime.
I remember little of the official program. There was a drone of speakers, often they were applauding each and every one of the thousands of buses that wheezed and snorted past them only half-heard from deep in the crowd. My friend and I were about to go off in search of a bite to eat. We were discussing whether that was even possible in such a crowd — and where we might find it — when a middle-aged woman in front of us overheard our conversation and remonstrated in a deep Southern drawl, “Honey, you can’t go now. Martin Luther King is about to speak.”
We knew the name, of course – we’d been reading about him for years in the newspapers – but at the time he was one in a succession of speakers, a great many of them with distinguished credentials and recognizable names, at a distant microphone.
We dutifully stuck around for what turned out to be the speech of the century.
… Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside … LET FREEDOM RING!!
The words were electric, and reflected the sense of national convergence that we felt out in the crowd. His words were still echoing in my ears many tired hours later as we debarked into the darkness on Northern Boulevard in Great Neck. But the words rang not just in our own ears. When I got home, my previously skeptical parents were waiting up late for me, buoyed themselves by the epic panorama that had dominated the evening newscasts. History had passed that way, and they wanted to talk about it, to share in it.
Martin Luther King’s inspired dream on Aug. 28, 1963, redefined and reinvigorated the American Dream, and hundreds of thousands of people lived out that dream symbolically on the streets of Washington. Many of us realized for the first time the power of individuals to add their numbers together to influence government policy, and we realized the power of an ideal whose time was long overdue.
Fifty years later, it’s still overdue, which is why it may help to relive that day for those who weren’t around. In an era of continuing racial injustice, advertent or otherwise, in voting booths, schools, courtrooms, prisons and elsewhere, we must rediscover the meaning of a community that extends beyond our own neighborhoods and races. My hope is that this anniversary will help reinvigorate the ideals for which we converged on Washington from all corners of the country.
It’s time for each of us, in our own places and circumstances, to get back on the bus.Hide