In 1963, eight years before National Public Radio hit the airwaves, WGBH and a small network of radio stations dubbed the “Educational Radio Network” (ERN) teamed up to broadcast full, uninterrupted coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As the march unfolded, quarter-inch tape rolled in Boston, recording speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, music by Mahalia Jackson and a very young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, an interview with Marlon Brando and much more…15 hours altogether. These tapes, now in the WGBH Media Library and Archives, are the only complete audio coverage of the broadcast in existence.
This coverage, with transcripts, has been made available to the public in its entirety via OpenVault’s March on Washington Collection.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the March in 2013, Charles Euchner, the author of Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington (Beacon Press, 2010) has written a Listeners Guide for the first 7 hours of coverage in order to help users navigate this comprehensive audio collection. Each section of the Guide represents one hour of broadcast audio, and explores background information on individual participants, groups and the planning of the march itself.
To write Nobody Turn Me Around, Euchner interviewed more than 120 people who participated in the March. He also did extensive archival research, obtained previously unheard audio and video recordings, and searched FBI records through the Freedom of Information Act. Euchner, who has spoken widely on civil rights before schools and community groups, describes the reason he chose to work with the materials as follows:
“I have spent my life studying grassroots politics of all kinds and have also worked as a planner in Boston and Florida. I wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people who made the civil rights movement succeed. I also wanted to show the complex dynamics of the movement, the differences among leaders and how such a diverse group came together to speak with one voice. As a child of the South — I was born in Chattanooga and went to college in Nashville — I also wanted to understand, more deeply, just how lucky I was to be one of the beneficiaries of the movement.”
For more information on Charles and how to purchase a copy of his book, please visit The Writing Code.
Wall-to-Wall Coverage: By modern standards, news coverage in the early 1960s was scant. Outside major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles, most Americans could get only a smattering of national news. In the South, coverage of civil rights was so thin—and so slanted—that the Ford Foundation funded publications like the Southern School News and Race Relations Reporter to create a record of major developments. And broadcasts of network news programs lasted just 15 minutes.
Offering wall-to-wall coverage of the March on Washington was a major undertaking of the Educational Radio network. Only ERN and CBS television offered complete live coverage of the March. For the first time, a major news event was also broadcast globally though Telstar, the new satellite news system. Viewers from Paris to Moscow could see the drama unfold as it was happening.
Live coverage gave the civil rights movement a unique opportunity. The American public had never had the opportunity to see civil rights activists without editing or interruption. According to the norms of “balanced” coverage, both sides of the civil rights struggle had to be given equal time. Segregationists’ inaccurate claims—that blacks were seeking special benefits, that blacks embraced segregation, that civil rights activists were violent—often neutralized the cries of blacks for equal rights.
Mainstream America had never heard Martin Luther King or other civil rights leaders deliver their full argument for their cause. They may have heard sound bites of King on TV or radio, but only people seeing King in person could hear his complete message.
When the coverage of the March on Washington began, no one knew whether the day would proceed peacefully or degenerate into violence. The Educational Radio Network offered a chance for people across the U.S. to monitor the events and absorb the message of civil rights.
Growing Crowd, Lessening Fear: For weeks, politicians and the media predicted that the March on Washington would lead to violence. Bill Mauldin, the celebrated political cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times, drew a picture of a long line snaking toward Washington, which was labeled as a power keg. Man-on-the-street interviews found Washingtonians apprehensive about the day.
But by the time coverage started on WGBH, early signs pointed to a peaceful, joyous day. The reporters of the Educational Radio Network painted a quotidian portrait of the day’s start. The news was mostly good: Buses and trains rolled into the city in waves. Button sales were brisk. The portable toilets were already proving a good investment.
The Grounds: The March took place on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Early in the planning process, March organizers considered marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, picketing the White House, and besieging Congress and even holding sit-ins in the offices of representatives and senators. But Pennsylvania Avenue would not hold the masses of demonstrators expected to converge on the nation’s capital. And Washington police and federal officials explained that Capitol Hill was off limits.
And so Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the March, shifted his efforts to the Mall. Rustin’s goal was simple: Show America the face of the civil rights movement, a racially mixed, diverse, nonviolent, intelligent, and agreeable cross-section of America. If they gathered on the Mall, TV cameras would show them as they were—not the unruly and dangerous mob that segregationists and skeptics often described. Reporters staked out positions on the mall. Participants were singing, connecting, exploring. And, in the event of disturbances, the National Guard and other special police forces were ready to act.
As demonstrators sang, “This May Be the Last Time,” the day was about to begin.
A Nazi Thwarted: No anti-civil rights figure got more attention before the March on Washington than George Lincoln Rockwell. The leader of the American Nazi Party promised to stage a counter-demonstration and, if possible, disrupt the March on Washington.
Behind the scenes, Rockwell and his followers predicted bloodshed. They hinted that they would instigate fights.
But police would not allow Rockwell and his small band of followers to meet at the Mall’s Sylvan Theater—and not many people showed up anyway. So there was hope, right away, that the racism of the Nazis would not get much attention.
Rallying for Home Rule: The people of Washington, the first majority-minority big city in the U.S., had a reputation for passivity on civil rights. As one of the nation’s most educated and professional black populations, the logic went, black Washingtonians did not feel the urgency of protesters throughout Dixie or in Northern cities. And so March organizers predicted that the locals would stay away from the demonstration in their own backyard. But organizers made a special effort to engage churches, civil servants, and schools to get a good local turnout.
Still, the issue of home rule seemed to be of greater interest to the citizens of Washington. The city was run by a congressional committee, which was dominated by Southern segregationists. Washingtonians could not vote for their own elected officials and could not send representatives to Congress. A growing home-rule movement agitated for local control of city affairs.
One of Martin Luther King’s lieutenants, a local minister named Walter Fauntroy, hatched a clever plan to promote home rule. Marchers would be asked to sign “pledge cards,” committing to work for civil rights when they returned home. After the March, Fauntroy got the addresses of demonstrators. He wrote them, asking that they contact their Congress members to support home rule. When Congress members all over the U.S. got those letters, they responded.
Along the Reflecting Pool: The coolest and hottest place in Washington on August 28th was the reflecting pool, the oasis that ran one third of a mile from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
As the morning dew dried and the sun rose in the sky, marchers sought to cool off by dangling their feet in the water. As the day wore on, the water was especially healing for marchers with swollen feet. But the pool also reflected the heat like a giant mirror. The most comfortable place to watch the day’s events was along the edges of the mall, under the trees that separated the grass from the parking lots where buses were parked for the day.
The Press Tent: More than 1,000 reporters had credentials to cover the March. To manage press logistics, March organizers set up a huge circus tent on the edge of the National Mall.
The tent was equipped with telephones and typewriters and stocked with press releases and other information; March volunteers helped to connect reporters with civil rights leaders and participants. All day, reporters met interview subjects, and made phone calls from the tent.
Everyman: The civil rights movement is often depicted as a struggle between right and wrong, brotherhood and racism, a unified nation and sectionalism, understanding and ignorance. Supporting basic rights—to vote, go to school, work, hold property, use public facilities—seems an easy question.
But reporter Al Hulsen’s interview with a man named Simon Cloonan, a resident of a Washington suburb, shows just how confusing and complex the issue of race could be to bystanders. Cloonan is a kind of everyman, respectful of other working people and eager to lend a hand to those in need. Musing about the civil rights movement, he sees the issue of racial equality as a simple matter of decency. He also argues for government programs to give everyone a chance to get a job.
But Cloonan is not immune from some of the ignorance of the day. He says that the Communist Party is behind much of the movement. Asked why, he says, “I can see it … the looks of ‘em, their action, and things like that.” Asked for evidence, he points to the interracial couples at the event. Simon Cloonan seems decent and fair, but also subject to the blind spots and distortions of his day.
Blacks and Jews Together: For decades, the most reliable ally of the civil rights movement was the American Jewish community. As victims of racism, segregated into ghettos all over Europe before the horrors of Nazi Germany, Jews took special interest in the plight of blacks. One of Martin Luther King’s closest friends was Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born rabbi whose mother and two sisters perished in concentration camps and the author of the seminal works Man Is Not Alone and God In Search of Man. One of the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial would be Joachim Prinz, a Holocaust survivor who was the president of the American Jewish Congress.
Voices for Peace and Nonviolence: With the rise of Martin Luther King, nonviolence became part of the DNA of the civil rights movement. But a dynamic pacifist movement had long been active in American life. The Unitarian church had always been active in peace efforts. And now they were lending their support by showing up for this massive demonstration on the National Mall
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis: All summer, actors Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee worked behind the scenes for civil rights. Davis was Bayard Rustin’s unofficial envoy to movie stars, musicians, artists, and authors—“la-la land,” in the words of March transportation organizer Rachelle Horowitz. And he served as the emcee of the morning’s activities, keeping the pace brisk, soothing egos, and adding levity to the proceedings.
The night before, Davis and Dee got a surprise visit from an old friend—Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam leader who had condemned the March as the “Farce on Washington” and criticized leaders like Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins as Uncle Toms. The Nation had instructed its followers to stay away from the March. But now here was Islam’s most famous American spokesman at the hotel door of the emcee and his wife.
Malcolm told the couple that he would lend his support if violence erupted at the March. Just call, he said. He would get Nation followers to help maintain order, separate attackers from peaceful marchers. In fact, Malcolm had intervened to support civil rights workers before. Floyd McKissick, the speaker representing the Congress of Racial Equality, once got Malcolm’s protection when a mob surrounded his home in North Carolina.
Ossie Davis was one of a handful of figures who moved easily around all parts of the black community, the entertainment industry, and politics. When Davis presided over the morning program, he did what he always did—connected people from all walks of life with each other.
The Swelling Throng: Until the morning of the March, organizers did not know how many people to expect. They set an informal goal of 100,000. As the Mall filled up, reporters revised their crowd estimates almost by the minute. The official crowd estimate was 250,000. Later, calculating the crowd size from aerial photographs, experts estimated the throng to be 400,000 or even 500,000. But to Bayard Rustin and other organizers, 250,000 was a big enough official estimate. They had shown that the civil rights movement could not only bring people together, but also articulate a coherent vision for civil rights.
Music of the Movement: The popular artists of the day—Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Odetta—all embraced the civil rights movement. Folk singers traveled all over the country to give concerts as fundraisers and to lend moral support to activists.
Strangely absent from the March, though, was jazz. John Handy, who performed for a year with Charlie Mingus and once appeared with Ella Fitzgerald, went to the March with a group from San Francisco organized by CORE. When Handy did not hear any jazz on the mall, he resolved to bring jazz into the movement when he returned home to California.
The A. Philip Randolph Story: The vision for the March on Washington came from A. Philip Randolph, the man who organized the porters for the Pullman Railroad Company in 1937. Pullman workers were required to work 400 hours or travel 11,000 miles on trains before they qualified for their poverty wages. Then the biggest employer of blacks in the U.S., the Pullman Company fought the union for 12 years—intimidating workers, withholding pay, firing organizers, and, at one point, attempting to bribe Randolph. When Randolph finally succeeded, he became an icon in the black community.
Randolph continued to agitate for labor and civil rights. In 1941 he organized a massive march on Washington to demand an end to discrimination in wartime industries. In exchange for Randolph’s calling off the demonstration, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to issue an executive order banning discrimination. Over the years, Randolph continued to play a major role in labor and civil rights.
In late 1962, Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s on-again-off-again protégé, persuaded Randolph to revive his dream of a massive march in Washington. The goals of the march: press the American public, the president, and Congress to pass civil rights legislation and adopt a program of job training and full employment. The terms of the march evolved over the next several months. In July, the final terms were set: a one-day demonstration on August 28th to bring together all factions of civil rights and labor, black and white, to promote “jobs and justice.”
Randolph was the first major civil rights figure to call for mass demonstrations. Before Randolph, the leading lights of civil rights called for accommodation to segregation (Booker T. Washington) or reliance on a small elite called the “Talented Tenth” (W.E.B. DuBois) to promote the black cause. But Randolph argued that blacks could end their “inferiority complex” and their “slave mentality” only by putting their bodies on the line.
Planning for Security: Organizers labored long and hard to prevent outbreaks of violence at the March on Washington. In New York, Bayard Rustin recruited volunteer “Guardians” and trained them to use peaceful tactics to isolate and snuff out any incidents. In Washington, Rustin met with Washington police and federal officials to assure that police would protect marchers. Rustin was unable to secure protection for buses carrying marchers to Washington.
To assure that the March was a peaceful event, Rustin did two things. First, he agreed to hold the gathering on the National Mall. Second, he arranged for a state-of-the-art sound system to be installed. If people could not hear the speakers and singers, he reasoned, they might get distracted and frustrated. To keep them focused on the theme of the day—jobs and justice—he needed to assure that the program would reach everyone on the Mall.
The Ballads of Bob Dylan: Like other artists, Bob Dylan could imagine a day when blacks and white would live and work together as equals. But unlike the more optimistic songs of the movement—like the movement’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome”—Dylan’s songs angrily blamed the white power structure for making the white working class “pawns” and he foresaw a period of revenge after the end of segregation.
In “When the Ship Comes In,” Dylan warned that the supporters of segregation, “like Pharaoh’s tribe, they’ll be drowned in the tide.” In “Only a Pawn in their Game,” Dylan paid tribute to Medgar Evers, the beloved leader of Mississippi’s NAACP who had been assassinated on June 12th. But rather than vilifying Evers’s killer, Dylan argues that the white working class thugs who beat and killed civil rights workers were really just doing the bidding of “the deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors … the marshals and cops.”
Dylan’s sharp-edged lyrics lent the movement a way to understand how both blacks and whites were victims of a larger system based on racism.
The Story of Bayard Rustin: Bayard Rustin, a longtime activist for peace, labor, and civil rights, was the preeminent organizer of his day. Pragmatic but also principled, Rustin recruited a band of talented young organizers to attend to all the details of the massive gathering. He gave them the authority to make decisions, resources to do their jobs, and protection from distractions. After their 12- to 16-hour workdays, Rustin met with his staff to review progress and set goals and strategies for the next day.
Rustin was not just an organizer of major campaigns and demonstrations. He was also the movement’s preeminent strategist and thinker about nonviolence. A pacifist since his days growing up in the Quaker community of West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin argued that nonviolence was the only practical approach to social movements. During the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin advised the young Martin Luther King. He organized three other major marches on the National mall, in 1957, 1958, and 1959.
When A. Philip Randolph decided to stage the March on Washington—at Rustin’s urging—he wanted Rustin to be the organizer. But other civil rights leaders opposed Rustin. Rustin, they complained, was a magnet for controversy. Not only was he openly gay, but as a young man he joined the Young Communist League and refused service in World War II. But when Randolph took responsibility for the march, he appointed Rustin as his deputy.
Organizing the March was a massive undertaking. In an era before the Internet or cellphones, Rustin had to gather the best and brightest among organizers and get them to engage activists all over the country. At the March headquarters in Harlem, organizers like Rachelle Horowitz and Joyce Ladner handled transportation and other logistics. Meanwhile, Norman Hill traveled to major cities to recruit local organizers. In Washington, Walter Fauntroy led efforts to engage local churches, the National Park Service and other federal agencies, and police and other city agencies.
Rustin was not only a major figure in civil rights. He was also involved in the labor movement and the anti-war and anti-nuclear proliferation movements; later, he would be a major figure in the gay rights movement.
Lena Horne’s Word: All her life, Lena Horne stood astride two worlds—one black and one white—and struggled to find her place in the entertainment industry. The light-skinned product of a mixed marriage, Horne could have “passed” as a white, but she embraced her black identity and heritage. Ultimately she found that she did not “belong” in either the white or black cultures of her day.
On the day of the March, Horne had been struggling with a cold and was too weak to do more than deliver a one-word charge to the throng on the National Mall. And so when she got to the podium, she leaned in and shouted: “Freeeeeee-dommmm!”
Ossie Davis, echoing the words of Nina Simone’s classic “Mississippi Goddam,” cracked: “And you can be sure she means every word of it.”
Teachers on the Mall: The modern civil rights movement began with Brown v. Board of Education, a case that confronted segregation in five school districts across the country. Teachers understood that they played a critical role in civil rights, since all young people must attend school.
During summers, many teachers volunteered to help with civil rights campaigns in the South. Teachers in New York, for example, traveled to Farmville, Virginia, to help teach summer classes for children who did not have the opportunity to attend school. Prince Edward County closed all of its schools in 1959 rather than comply with Brown. So the New York teachers spent the summer of 1963 teaching in “freedom schools.”
Troubadours of the Movement: Peter, Paul, and Mary captured the idealist spirit of the 1960s as well as any entertainers. With their hits “Lemon Tree,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “If I Had a Hammer,” and their rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the folk trio found an international audience.
Off the stage, the three spoke earnestly about the civil rights movement as well as the growing sentiment against the Vietnam War. Clean-cut and openly dedicated to American values, Peter, Paul, and Mary helped expand the appeal of the civil rights music to the Baby Boom generation and, sometimes, its parents.
The Man on Roller Skates: People came to the march by planes, trains, buses, and automobiles.
And they went by foot. A group organized by CORE walked the complete route from New York to Washington. Three teenaged boys walked and hitchhiked from Gadsden, Alabama. The most unusual foot traveler was probably Ledger Smith, a factory worker from Chicago who roller-skated the whole way.
Ledger Smith didn’t talk much when asked about his unusual journey. When asked about his statement for civil rights, he said he preferred to let his skates do the talking.
The Man Who Broke Baseball’s Color Line: When he broke baseball’s color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson transformed not only the national pastime but the mindsets of fans and major league cities all over America. After retiring in 1957, Robinson continued to speak out for civil rights, serving on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A political independent—he endorsed Richard Nixon for president in 1960 but praised President John Kennedy for his commitment to civil rights—Robinson argued that business held the key to black success. As a spokesman for Chock Full o’ Nuts, Robinson called for boycotts and group-buying campaigns to pressure businesses to honor blacks’ civil rights.
Marching: The actual marching took place on two of Washington’s great boulevards. The leaders of the Big Ten, the civil rights, labor, and religious organizations that formally sponsored the March, led marchers down Constitution Avenue. The women heroes of the March, including Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates, led a different group down Independence Avenue. As they marched, people sang, chanted, bantered, danced, hugged, and laughed.
Marching II: Buses streamed into the National Mall into the early afternoon, when a few groups began to tire and leave to return home.
As marchers moved down Constitution and Independence Avenues, a myth took hold: The event was just like a peaceful “church picnic.” The orderly procession of marchers, the joyous embraces of friends old and new, and the stern determination to achieve civil right gave off the air of a humble gathering rather than a noisy protest.
But the marchers expressed a determination not only to pass the president’s civil rights legislation but also to speak truth to power. They spoke directly about the terror they faced in the South, threats to their life, getting fired from jobs or evicted from homes as retribution for participating in the movement.
To be sure, the day was peaceful. But the participants did not soft-pedal their complaints about the broken promises of the American system—or their determination to do whatever necessary to gain their rights.
Voice of America: For all the talk of violence and riots, the U.S. Information Agency decided that the March on Washington would offer a prime opportunity to promote the American ideal of dissent. The Voice of America hired dozens of cameramen to record the events on the National mall for use in films to distribute across the world. If the march went well, it would be an example of American decency and openness. The V.O.A. eventually produced a brief documentary without narration, introduced by longtime journalist-turned-V.O.A. official Carl Rowan.
Marshals: The prospect of violence caused the federal and District governments to prepare elaborate plans for controlling mobs. Troops waited in Fort Bragg to fly into the mall and restore order. In New York, March organizer Bayard Rustin trained retired New York police officers to quell violence nonviolently.
Arrest of a Nazi: George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, had predicted a mass outpouring of white supremacists at the March. But only a couple dozen showed up. Because the Nazis did not get a parade permit, they were not permitted to speak when they gathered on the edge of the National Mall. Carl Allen, one of Rockwell’s deputies, tried to speak twice but police warned him to stop or get arrested. “We are prepared to protest by as peaceful a means as possible the occupation of Washington by forces deadly to the welfare of our country.” With those words he was arrested for making a speech without a permit and taken to a special booking center.
Race Problems in the North: The race problem was not limited to the South. In fact, thousands of civil rights activists moved into cities like New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and San Francisco in the summer of 1963. Despite the tension over civil rights in those cities, many city officials claimed that racial discrimination did not exist in their purview.
‘No we do not and we have never had” racial discrimination in the Department of Licenses in New York, the assistant commissioner told the Educational Radio Network. The interviewer was impressed with his commitment and vehemence. Concerns about racism in schools, housing, public jobs, and police could wait for another time.
‘Extremely Orderly’: With all the speculation and planning for possible violence, reporters and participants alike spent the day marveling at the peaceful procession of protesters.
Kids, Stay Home: Fearing violence—as well as the inconvenience of a day when people would be packed into limited space—police told families to leave their children at home. One of the children to watch the March on TV was Floyd McKissick, Jr., whose father Floyd Senior was speaking on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality. Years later, he said he understood the fear—but also remembered much more dire circumstances growing up in North Carolina.
“You would get letters with the Knights of the KKK,” he said. “My mother used to keep Playtex gloves [so she could keep mail] protected for fingerprints and pass it on to the FBI. … In Durham, for a year and a half, we’d have folks sit on the porch with guns to protect us from sunset to sunrise.”
White Citizens Council Plans: The American Nazi Party was not the only racist group planning disruptive acts at the March on Washington. The White Citizens Council, established in the 1950s to oppose school desegregation, tried to organize a contingent. A Council group from Tennessee planned to drop 100,000 leaflets on the mall from a plane, making the argument that Abraham Lincoln “opposed integration,” but the leaflets never came. The Ku Klux Klan sent its leaders on a private plane, which crashed en route in South Carolina. The American Council of Christian Churches, which opposed integration, was rebuffed in its bid to get a meeting with President Kennedy.
House and Senate Leaders: On the morning of the March on Washington, the “Big Ten” visited leaders from both parties in the House of Representatives and the Senate to lobby for passage of President Kennedy’s landmark civil rights legislation. Key leaders expressed support but refused to support strong language assuring access to public accommodations or protection against employment discrimination. But as Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and other March leaders moved from office to office, they appeared to find enough support to find hope for the bill.
Capitol Hill scheduled little business in this day. The only major issue facing a vote was an emergency measure to end a nationwide rail strike. Many congressional offices were closed for the day. Many ardent segregationists, like Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, granted press interviews explaining their opposition to civil rights. Thurmond contended that blacks in American enjoyed more material wealth than blacks in other parts of the world, which he said was evidence that the racial segregation worked to their benefit.
The Death of W.E.B. DuBois: With the announcement of the death of W.E.B. DuBois on the day before the March on Washington, the civil rights movement was reminded of its modern roots.
DuBois was one of the founders, in 1909, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, a biracial organization, aimed to make civil rights a mainstream issue.
DuBois was a prolific author and speaker and organizer. He wrote the seminal work of the early movement, The Souls of Black Folk and countless other books, articles, briefs, pamphlets, testimony, and speeches about race in American and the world. In recent years he had renounced his American citizenship and settled in Ghana. But before he died he wrote a brief note of encouragement to marchers: “One thing alone I charge you, as you live: Believe in Life!”
Despite his long-simmering quarrels with DuBois’s radicalization, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins paid tribute to DuBois at the March. “At the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice calling to you to gather here today in this cause.”
No Sit-Ins: The greatest frustration for members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and many other young activists, was the ban on protests and sit-ins on Capitol Hill. Early in the planning for the March on Washington, these “Young Jacobins” talked openly about confronting the President and members of his administration as well as key figures in Congress.
But Bayard Rustin, the March’s organizer, went along with warnings against direct action. Rustin’s goal was to mass as many people in the nation’s capital for a peaceful display of the breadth, intelligence, and dignity of the movement. So he quickly agreed to the warnings of federal and city officials in the early meetings to plan security for the event.
The Middle of the Road: The so-called “moderates” posed one of the more difficult challenges to the civil rights movement. Figures like John Volpe, the governor of Massachusetts and later a member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet, argued matter-of-factly for civil rights.
But he often reinforced stereotypes about rights activists when he talked about “the more responsible elements in the Negro community,” as if those elements were the exception and not than the rule. Still, Volpe and other key figures in the G.O.P. helped to sway reluctant whites throughout the North to support civil rights.
Norman Thomas: Few people fought longer or harder for a losing cause than Norman Thomas, the Presbyterian minister who led the American Socialist Party and ran for president under its banner six times. Long on the fringes of American politics, on this day Thomas felt at its very center.
Sitting at the Lincoln Memorial later in the afternoon, he turned to a young organizer named Rachelle Horowitz and exclaimed: “It makes you believe in socialism again!”
James Baldwin’s Contribution: James Baldwin, the author of Black Boy who had exiled himself to Paris, returned to the United States in the spring of 1963 to join in the movement. Baldwin not only took part in some protests but also worked behind the scenes to assist civil rights leaders, confront politicians, and encourage young people.
His greatest contribution may have come in May, when he organized a meeting of black artists and intellectuals with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. For more than two hours, the black leaders pressed Kennedy to take an unequivocal, moral stand for civil rights. When a young activist named Jerome Smith personally confronted him, saying that he would not fight for the U.S. in a war because the U.S. did not respect his rights, Kennedy was shocked—and he was even more dismayed when Smith’s elders backed him up.
Both Baldwin and Kennedy left the meeting in a state of shock, depressed at the enormity of the nation’s racial gulf. A month later, President John Kennedy gave perhaps the most important presidential address on civil rights. Calling civil rights a moral issue “as old as the scripture,” Kennedy announced that he would send legislation to Congress to abolish segregation in public accommodations.
Marlon Brando and the Hollywood Contingent: Marlon Brando traveled all over the country—from California to Alabama, from Chicago to New York—to support civil rights demonstrators. He was arrested in Chicago when he joined protests against “Willis Wagons,” the trailers that were used as temporary schools in black neighborhoods. With fellow actor Paul Newman, he went to Alabama, where he heard stories of police using cattle prods against peaceful protesters.
In Hollywood, Brando helped organized a contingent of actors to fly to the March and to pledge to support civil rights and eradicate discrimination in the film industry.
At the March, Brando was by turns indignant and comic when talking about America’s race problem. At the podium, he showed fellow marchers a cattle prod to press the urgency of the cause.
Red Cross: Logistics, Bayard Rustin believed, would either make or break the March on Washington. The Red Cross, as always, was on hand to help. The Red Cross manned 35 first-aid stations and assisted 1,335 people during the day. One person had a heart attack and died during the march. But the day was free of violence, cheering emergency health care providers and police alike.
Supporters in Congress: Senator Paul Douglas, a regal senator from Illinois, was one of the leading supporters of civil rights on Capitol Hill. During the planning for the March, Douglas became famous for the “latrine letters,” a series of memos he wrote urging that the March on Washington provide as many portable toilets as possible.
New York’s congressional delegation was also dogged in its support for civil rights. Emanuel Celler was a longtime supporter of human rights of all kinds. He opposed immigration laws that favored white European populations, pushed the U.S. to admit Jews fleeing Nazi extermination, and confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-scare tactics. He also worked tirelessly for civil rights, sponsoring major pieces of legislation. Senator Kenneth Keating, a Rockefeller Republican, also supported civil rights. He was credited with integrating the congressional dining room by simply inviting Adam Clayton Powell and his wife to join him for a meal.
Fred Shuttlesworth’s Moment: Fred Shuttlesworth, a former Birmingham minister, encouraged Martin Luther King to launch a major assault on segregation in the South’s toughest bastion.
That spring campaign—named Project C, for Confrontation—offered King an opportunity to come back from the humiliation of his unsuccessful 1962 campaign in Albany, Georgia. King’s lieutenants, led by Wyatt Tee Walker, developed a detailed plan for organizing churches, holding public meetings, staging mass demonstrations, and confronting businesses downtown.
Three major events transformed the movement. First, King’s arrest on Good Friday led to his imprisonment, where he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper that his friends smuggled out. That letter, a response to white clergy who criticized his use of civil disobedience, has become the classic statement of conscientious refusal. Second, the brutal attacks ordered by Sheriff Bull Connor, captured in TV images and newspaper photos, shocked the nation with the violence of segregation. Third, young people by the thousands joined in demonstrations—and eventually broke away and swarmed in to downtown, promoting businessmen to push city leaders to negotiate the end of formal segregation.
Shuttlesworth was disappointed when he was not offered a speaking role at the March on Washington. When March organizers worked to resolve a controversy over John Lewis’s incendiary speech, they turned to Shuttlesworth to speak to stall the opening of the afternoon program. This he did with relish.
Celebrities and Artists for Civil Rights: Overseas, Americans and other friends of civil rights rallied the day before the March on Washington. Burt Lancaster, who was shooting a film called The Train about the French Resistance in World War II, traveled from Paris to participate in the March. He presented a petition signed by 1,500 Americans supporting the civil rights movement.
Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso who popularized Caribbean music and was the first artist to sell 1 million records, had been a behind-the-scenes player in the movement for years. Belafonte gave concerts to raise money for the movement and personally helped to fund the Freedom Rides, voter registration campaigns, and paid bail for Martin Luther King and others.
The Nation’s Capital Slows Down: The March on Washington took place on a Wednesday for a simple reason. Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March, figured that church ministers would want to take part. Most would travel by bus, train, or car. To get to Washington from as far away as Louisiana or Georgia would take a couple of days. If the March was held any other day, ministers and their flock might not be able to be home in time for Sunday services.
But a mid-week march disrupted normal city business. Most federal agencies and local businesses took at least half of the day off, making Washington a ghost town.
Patrick O’Boyle’s Invocation: Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, a major behind-the-scenes player for civil rights in Washington, found himself caught in the middle of the movement’s shifting politics with the controversy over a speech to be given by John Lewis
When O’Boyle read an advance draft of the speech—which reflected the impatience of young activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—he was concerned about what he considered to be radical passages.
O’Boyle threatened to pull the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington out of the March—and to refuse to deliver the invocation to begin the afternoon program. After hours of debate and negotiation, the speech was revised and O’Boyle was brought to the National Mall, where he delivered his remarks.
Eugene Blake’s Heartfelt Reckoning: Eugene Carson Blake, a onetime president of the National Council of Churches, the representative of Protestants at the March on Washington, used his address to atone for what he considered to be white indifference to civil rights.
Earlier that summer, Blake became the first white clergyman to get arrested in the movement. He was part of a group that demonstrated on the Fourth of July to desegregate the Gwynn Oaks Amusement Park in Baltimore.
“We come, and late we come, but we come to present ourselves this day, our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God … [that] can manifest to a troubled world the grace that is available in communion table and high altar.”
Heroines of the Movement: In the days before the March on Washington—and after—women struggled to gain greater roles and recognition for their work in the civil rights movement.
A number of women, veterans like Anna Hedgeman and Dorothy Height, and younger activists like Pauli Murray and Casey Hayden—lobbied A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin for a major speaking role on August 28th. But Randolph and Rustin were wary of changing plans at the last minute. The March organizers had already decided to feature only the representatives of the ten formal sponsors of the March.
Marian Anderson: If the March on Washington identified the National Mall as the setting of the “greatest demonstration for freedom in our nation’s history,” Marian Anderson’s performance on Easter Sunday in 1939 christened the Mall as the nation’s spiritual gathering place.
Anderson, a classical vocalist and a leading light in black cultural life, had planned to give a concert at Constitution Hall. But the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the venue, refused to allow her performance because she was black. After weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, led by President and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson’s performance took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people.
The Passion of John Lewis: Behind the scenes, the factions of the civil rights movement—and the Catholic archbishop of Washington and representatives of the White House—battled over what John Lewis would say that day.
Lewis was the newly elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC—called “Snick”—sent students and other volunteers into the most violent precincts of the old Confederacy to lead campaigns for voter registration and desegregating public accommodations. SNCC activists were not only younger, but also less patient and more demanding than traditional civil rights activists in the NAACP and SCLC.
The speech that Lewis gave was a collective effort of SNCC activists. If the nation did not meet the demands of civil rights activists, Lewis said, they would undertake their own “March to the Sea,” a reference to the infamous scorched-earth campaign by General William Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah toward the end of the Civil War. Lewis also rejected President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation as “too little and too late,” mocked calls of liberal allies for patience, and embraced revolution.
The night before the March, an advance copy of the speech fell into the hands of Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who showed it to allies in the Kennedy Administration. Incensed by its strong language, O’Boyle demanded that the offending passages be cut from the speech. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Walter Reuther of the UAW, among others, agreed with the critique. For the next 12 hours, the Old Guard battled with the Young Turks over the rhetoric in SNCC’s manifesto.
After the March leaders reached the Lincoln Memorial, a small group huddled near the statue of Abraham Lincoln to find a compromise. Lewis agreed to strike some of the offending phrases. James Forman, one of SNCC’s leaders, typed a new version that Lewis would give in less than an hour.
The new speech was every bit as tough and uncompromising as the first. Lewis adopted the battle cry of anticolonial movements in Africa—“One Man, One Vote”—and complained that neither party represented the interests of blacks. He then laid out the job of the movement in the most poetic terms: “We shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God.”
The Lewis controversy may have contributed to a new phase of activism—the Free Speech Movement that began at the University of California in Berkeley in 1964. For the first time, college students demanded the right to speak freely without the censorship or consent of adults.
Labor’s Voice on the Mall: Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, found himself caught between political and labor factions during the summer. A staunch supporter of civil rights, Reuther enthusiastically endorsed the March, investing tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the sound system, the signs that marchers carried, transportation, and other logistics.
Reuther often found resistance within the labor movement. Many white union members resented civil rights—especially the competition that they feared from black workers. Reuther also warred with George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, who declined to participate in the March.
Reuther also found himself in the middle of intramural struggles within the civil rights movement. President Kennedy asked him to monitor civil rights leaders and moderate their behavior. When Archbishop O’Boyle of Washington’s Catholic Archdiocese found an advance draft of John Lewis’s speech too radical, Reuther agreed. He pressed Lewis and other young activists to tone down the speech; at the same time, he kept the Kennedy Administration and O’Boyle informed. Just as the afternoon portion of the March began, Reuther sent a car to bring O’Boyle to the mall.
In his speech, Reuther stated the matter simply. Civil rights, he said, is not a matter for compromise. “There is no halfway house to human freedom,” he said. If the U.S. fails to embrace civil rights, “the vacuum created by our failure will be filled by the apostles of hate.”
Speaking for Global Nonviolence: Floyd McKissick was not originally scheduled to speak at the March on Washington. James Farmer, the eloquent and fiery head of the Congress of Racial Equality, was. But Farmer was in jail for his part in leading protests in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Farmer had wanted to speak, but other members of the Plaquemine movement agreed that he had to stay in jail to dramatize the movement.
So Farmer watched the March on a small black-and-white TV that his jailers brought to his cell. And McKissick delivered Farmer’s message.
True to his background as a pacifist, Farmer warned against the destructive potential of the nuclear age. Only through nonviolence, he said, could the world avoid the ultimate horror of nuclear Armageddon.
Visions of a Great Society: Whitney Young was often depicted as a “moderate” or even “conservative” civil rights leader. True enough, Young favored formal politics over protest. The son of an educator who favored Booker T. Washington’s vision of self-sufficiency, Young usually sided with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP in the intramural conflicts among civil rights leaders.
Young cultivated the administration of John F. Kennedy, working behind the scenes to fashion a domestic policy agenda not just for blacks but also for poor and working class people of all backgrounds. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Young worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson to fashion the programs that became known as the Great Society—the most ambitious domestic program since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Voice of the NAACP: Roy Wilkins was the embodiment of the more traditional approach to civil rights—based on lobbying and legal action—that gave way to waves of protests and demonstrations beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an integrated organization formed in 1905, was the leading force behind a series of cases challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine in education. In 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregated schools were inherently unequal. It was the greatest achievement of the civil rights movement since Reconstruction.
Wilkins was dubious about the strategy of protests and demonstrations to achieve civil rights. In one famous encounter, he challenged Martin Luther King’s leadership of activism. ”Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me,” Wilkins said. “Well,” King said, “I guess about the only thing I’ve desegregated so far is a few human hearts.”
But Wilkins shifted in 1963. In June he was arrested for picketing a variety store in Jackson, Mississippi. And he led the mourners for Medgar Evers, the NAACP organizer who was murdered later that month. And on the day of the March, Wilkins was enthusiastic about the turnout. “This is the king of all marches!” he said.
In his remarks that day, Wilkins was playful, interacting with the marchers on the mall and calling attention to people on the edge of the mall and in trees. He warned against compromise in the deliberations over President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation. And he charged the marchers to look forward. He quoted Luke: “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
The Soul of the Movement: If the civil rights movement was a church-based movement—with ministers exhorting their flocks in sermons, and the flocks meeting and protesting en masse all over the South—then Mahalia Jackson provided the musical soul of the movement.
Jackson survived a childhood of abuse but found her spirit and voice in gospel music. Her voice was a choir and a symphony, blending together the sounds of hope and beauty, as well as the pain and tragedy, of the black experience. Jackson grew up singing in the “Dr. Watts” style, blending together the diverse sounds of the choir and the congregation. Jackson herself blended together these sounds into one voice.
Long a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jackson was asked to sing just before his appearance. After a long afternoon—hot, muggy, sticky, tiring, aching—Jackson’s rendition of “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” electrified the throng on the National Mall.
Never Again: When Joachim Prinz rose to speak to the March on Washington, he had a hard act to follow. “I wish I could sing!” he exulted.
Prinz, a survivor of the Holocaust, was there to speak about the universality of rights—and the necessity to speak against evil. He lamented Germany’s slide from a nation of great literature, music, and philosophy to “a nation of silent onlookers.” Time after time, Prinz said, Germans had the opportunity to speak up as the Nazis persecuted Jews. Time after time, people looked the other way.
That, too, was the story of blacks in America. People of all faiths, Prinz said, needed to support civil rights as if they were their own.
Behind the scenes, Prinz worried that the long alliance between blacks and Jews was being threatened by a new wave of anti-Semitism. In correspondence with Martin Luther King, Prinz told of blacks in New York and Newark and other cities blaming Jews for their misfortunes.
Martin Luther King’s Dream: Years later, Martin Luther King’s address would be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. And for good reason: King’s dream that blacks and whites would ”sit down together at the table of brotherhood” offers one of the most compelling statements of community in American rhetoric and letters.
But King’s speech offers much more than a powerful dream. The speech is a compelling rededication to American principles of freedom and equality, an indictment of America’s broken promises to blacks, a plea for blacks to remain nonviolent in their struggle, a warning to white friends not to go slow on civil, rights, and a celebration of the “marvelous new militancy” among young activists.
Above all, King speaks with honesty to his people. He exhorts them to return home to fight for civil rights—where, he adds, they will face a vicious backlash, loss of home and jobs, violence, even death. All this, King says, is unfair. But he adds that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” Only by struggling and suffering more than they deserve, King said, could blacks overcome their inferior position in American life. People in power do not yield without a fight. Get ready for the fight, King warned.
Dispersing: When it was all over, the March on Washington dispersed as peacefully as it began. Still mesmerized by the performances of Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson, and others, the marchers walked to their buses and trains for the trip home.
A small group of young people, gathered at the apron of the Lincoln Memorial, stayed just a little bit longer. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, they linked arms and formed a circle and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The group began the day a little bitter and cynical, mostly about the John Lewis affair but also about the slow action on civil rights and the danger they faced in campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama and the rest of Dixie.
But for one brief time, they came together and sang the movement’s anthem, which many claimed to detest for its sweetness and optimism.