Marching on Washington and Moving in the Movement
Remembering What It Was Like Four Decades Ago
I can still remember the morning. We had spent the week circulating flyers and trying to anticipate what would happen. No one had ever even attempted a March on the scale of this one.
It had been a hot summer of protest. The civil rights struggle was in full throttle. In August 1963, I was a full time civil rights worker in Baltimore Maryland. I was on the staff of the Northern Student Movement (NSM), the northern counterpart to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC) Our organization was working in community based projects in 8 Northern cities, offering tutoring for disadvantaged students in ghetto schools and mounting marches and actions. Earlier in the summer, I was caught up in what became violent protests at the Glen Echo Amusement Park in the Suburbs. Many of us were arrested and attacked by rednecks. My name was in the paper as one of those victims.
At the sane time, I represented NSM on the Maryland State Committee for the March on Washington. We had been meeting all summer to plan/organize the mobilization, and to try to make sure that all the labor and student groups we had reached out to would come. Our own Baltimore Area Youth Opportunities Unlimited project filled five buses out of East Baltimore, one of the most depressed communities in the state.
Throughout the summer, we had heard about the cat and mouse game being played by the Kennedy Administration which welcomed the march publicly but tried to distance itself from it and even sabotage it. Remember the March was about jobs and economic justice too. They tried to decide who should speak and who should not. The head of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, a mainstream moderate tried to suppress a speech by now Georgia Congressman John Lewis who intended to criticize the hypocritical policies of the Kennedy Boys who were trying to manage the civil rights revolution. John refused to be bowed. He went ahead despite tremendous pressure to moderate his militancy.
The media was not very enthusiastic. Columnists like Robert Novak red-baited SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. Many snide and disparaging comments appeared about March organizer Bayard Rustin who was known as a radical and gay to boot. The March’s leader was the veteran labor leader A Phillip Randolph who I met in his Harlem office as student journalist for the Clinton News, my high school newspaper way back in l960 when the student sit ins inspired me to cross the line between journalism and activism.
If you have ever been to Union Station in Washington, you can see a sculpture honoring the man who led the sleeping car porters, a vanishing breed of railway worker. It was he who insisted that the March call for JOBS and JUSTICE. He used to refer to Martin Luther King JAY R (Jr.) in style of deep voiced polished articulation. He was a man of great dignity who had led an earlier March that we forget now in l941 against Jim Crow in the US military.
THE INTERNAL DEBATE
As an organizer of the march, (albeit, a lowly one) I was privy to the gossip and all the internal politics, to the compromises and organizational in- fighting. How militant should we be. Should there be civil disobedience? Would there be counter protests or violence? No one really knew how many people would turn out or that the “I have a Dream speech” would define the moment for decades to come.
As we drove to Washington, we could see that it would be big. Really big! Other marches on other issues would latter be bigger but this one at 250,000 was a first. (The Million Man March had a bigger crowd but a smaller impact.) The excitement was palpable as we sang freedom songs and passed a long line of buses from New York and the whole East Coast. We were pouring into the Capital like some unstoppable army of non-violent liberation. Reported the Baltimore Sun: “Like a stream hitting the Mississippi, the Baltimore buses with intermixed with a seemingly endless flood of vehicles bearing March on Washington signs moving South on the Expressway. (We passed a car with another message: “National Association for the Advancement of White People.”) The leaders all wore suits, but many among the Deep South field secretaries came in the blue denim garb of sharecroppers, the uniform of the Southern movement. Union people wore white hats to signal their status as Marshals. If you have seen footage of the March, or the many pictures, you could see those proud black men and women surrounding King on the platform. (Google March On Washington and you enter a world of historical resources) What you may not know is that it was NOT covered live. There were no live broadcasts, no CNN or C-SPAN then. The networks all shot film for what were then 15 minute newscasts. Two films were shot, one by the USIA which was shown worldwide as government propaganda to show all the civil rights progress in the USA. The other was owned by the King Family which has in recent years licensed it to big corporations.
WE CHEERED UNTIL WE COULDN'T CHEER NO MORE
I ended up with my cohort near the front. I had a clear line of vision and could see the whole show, including singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Marian Anderson. We cheered until we couldn’t cheer no more. CORE leader James Farmer was in jail in Louisiana and couldn’t be there. Others who should have been there like organizer Herbert Lee were dead at the hands of segregationists.
For student activists like me, John Lewis was our leader. Historian Howard Zinn who taught in Georgia in those days and authored the first history of SNNC wrote about his speech for the Nation in 1963.
“Standing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, John Lewis turned his wrath, not at the easy target, the Dixiecrats, but against the Administration…
“To many, the March had been presented as a gigantic lobby for the Administration's Civil Rights Bill, but Lewis pointed quickly, unerringly, to the weaknesses in the bill. Furthermore, by sponsoring a new civil-rights bill, the Administration had skillfully turned attention to Congress, and deflected the erratic spotlight of the civil-rights movement from possibly focusing on inadequacies of the Executive.
“The straight, crass fact at which John Lewis was aiming is this: the national government, without any new legislation, has the power to protect Negro voters and demonstrators from policemen's clubs, hoses and jails—and it has not used that power.”
Afterwards John Lewis would criticize the coverage for its focus on the King speech, saying “Too many commentators and reporters softened and trivialized the hard edges of pain and suffering that brought about this day in the first place, virtually ignoring the hard issues that needed to be addressed.”
WHAT JOHN SAYS NOW
John is the only surviving speaker who appeared on the rostrum that day, He spoke at a commemoration last week that I would have been at if I hadn't been away. His view now: “Forty years later, we see an economy that is not doing well. More and more people, young people and minorities, are not able to find work. There are still hundreds of thousands of people . . . who are trapped in a sea of poverty," said Lewis, now a Georgia Democrat in the House of Representatives. He added: "The American people are too quiet. We're too complacent. We need to make a little noise."
THE REPORTING WAS VIVID
It is hard to remember now of all the great reporting that was done that brought the “noise” of this struggle to White Americans. Many of the best journalists were Southerners like Claude Sitton of the New York Times who wrote colorfully about what it was like to confront segregation. One of his dispatches appears in a great two volume collection called Reporting Civil Rights. Here’s one story I remember:
"Sheriff Harasses Negroes at Voting Rally in Georgia"
The New York Times, July 27, 1962.
SASSER, Ga., July 26—"We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years," said Sheriff Z. T. Mathews of Terrell County. Then he turned and glanced disapprovingly at the thirty-eight Negroes and two whites gathered in the Mount Olive Baptist Church here last night for a voter-registration rally.
"I tell you, cap'n, we're a little fed up with this registration business," he went on.
“As the 70-year-old peace officer spoke, his nephew and chief deputy, M. E. Mathews, swaggered back and forth fingering a hand-tooled black leather cartridge belt and a .38-caliber revolver. Another deputy, R. M. Dunaway, slapped a five-cell flashlight against his left palm again and again.
“The three officers took turns badgering the participants and warning of what "disturbed white citizens" might do if this and other rallies continued.”
No one who was there will ever forget it. It was so new, so hopeful, so filled with righteousness. Linn Washington writes about a young Ed Bradley, now of 60 Minutes who was also there as a Bus captain. “DJ Georgie Woods, an avid Civil Rights Movement activist, asked Bradley to serve as a “bus captain” for one of the buses that Woods had chartered to take people to the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington.
For Ed Bradley, the “March was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. There’d never been a demonstration like that in our lifetime. It was a feeling that we’d done something special; we were a part of something special,” noted Bradley, who was studying to be an elementary school teacher at Cheyney State in 1963.”
The March and the Movement changed many of our lives. After the March ended, the leaders went to lobby the White House. Kennedy staged a photo op even as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover who had been bugging Dr. King has men out spying as best they could. Many of us feared the leaders would be co-opted.
After the March, I recommitted myself to the Movement and dropped out of Cornell. I moved to Harlem to work for NSM full time, and ended up editing the magazine Freedom North.
That night, I wandered over to a big DC hotel where many of the leaders were staying and celebrating the fact that the march was consummated so peacefully and successfully. I stayed in DC and actually ran into Malcolm X who was there but did not come to the March. The movement activists were debating the March’s impact.
Dr. King’s eloquence was still ringing in my ears although I knew that he deviated from his initial text and had actually given the speech before in the mass march in Detroit earlier in June. Like the March on Washington, it was the Auto Workers who made the march happen. Workers were in the forefront of this fight from day one. Don’t forget them.
WHAT THE PAPERS REPORTED—AND DIDN’T
The next morning, in a torrential rain, the hard rain that Dylan said was gonna fall, I took the bus back to Bal’more wondering how we could ever top the great March on Washington.
On the way out of town I picked up some newspapers, The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and News-post and New York Daily News. I stashed them away, but just in time for this anniversary found them in a forgotten stash of memorabilia. Today, no one saves newspapers. Everyone thinks everything is on line.
Those papers are yellowing and torn but fascinating to review. Here’s the POST Headline: “MAMMOTH RALLY OF 200,000 JAMS MALL IN SOLEMN, ORDERLY PLEA FOR EQUALITY.” (Today the accepted turnout figure is 250,000) The lead story reported on a “massive display of fervor.” Security was reported to be greater than that for a Presidential inauguration. The police chief estimated that 80 percent of the crowd was black. The Post put the number at 69.1% based on one photo analysis. A second P 1 story said “Rally Impact on Congress Still Doubtful” since the political debate then was all about the pending civil rights bill which did later pass. Not far from that story was another more ominous one, about a repressive crackdown by the Diem regime in Saigon. Diem would later be assassinated by the CIA working for a president who would be assassinated himself in less than three months. Not everyone heard our call for non-violence.
The Baltimore Sun, seemed more concerned about order than justice with headlines about the peaceful nature of the march, “As of early this morning” reported the lead, “no reports had been received from any part of the country of violence and disturbances” by participants. The Baltimore News-Post also led with a story headlined “Massive Crowd is Orderly.” What did they expect?
FEAR ON WHITE FACES
You can see that the White establishment was scared shitless when all these black folks came to town.
Years later, writer Tom Wolfe would explain: “When black people first started using the confrontation tactic, they made a secret discovery. There was an extra dividend to this tactic. There was a creamy dessert. It wasn't just that you registered your protest and showed the white man that you meant business and weakened his resolve to keep up the walls of oppression. It wasn't just that you got poverty money and influence. There was something sweet that happened right there on the spot. You made the white man quake. You brought fear into his face.”
There clearly was a fear buried in the news reports. What is striking now when the whole March is portrayed only as an I HAVE A DREAM festival, Dr. King’s speech did not even make page one. It was buried in a page 3 A Post story headlined “Restrained Militancy Marks Rally Speeches.” did indicate it received the “biggest applause.” Amazing, all the press downplayed THE SPEECH. In a sense they BURIED THE LEAD.
THE WHOLE WORLD WAS WATCHING (SORT OF)
There was a Telstar satellite beaming coverage overseas with a special cold war press emphasis on how the Russians covered it. (They didn’t, the Post surmised, because mass protests there are forbidden.) The paper reported: “The image was often jerky during two fifteen minute telecasts. One Polish viewer is quoted as saying “How prosperous they seem.” Remember, many marchers wore their Sunday Church going finery. They were there to impress—and to press the issue.
AP reported that “Red China as well as Russia expressed declarations of support for the march. Europe surveyed the march with anxious sympathy.” Senator, later Vice President, Hubert Humphrey praised the marcher’s “good manners.’
None of this takes away from the magic of that moment and the fact that 40 years on, I am still thinking about those days and how they changed our world, and my world, at least in part.
These were the days of what we called THE Movement, pronounced Mooovy-ment. It was our community and our classroom, united by faith, often undermined by fear of mad Sheriffs and brutal cops..
The short bus ride I took to Washington on that August morning was not so short for those who came from the deep South, from what MLK Jr. called the hills and molehills of Alabama, Old Stone Mountain in Georgia or Lookout Mountain in Tennessee or from the bayous of Louisiana or the cotton fields of Mississippi. That March represented the strivings and the struggle of many generations that never thought they would ever see that day.
How amazing it is now to think how I, a son of a garment worker would be so welcomed into a world of ex-slaves, that I who came out of a Bronx housing project would be integrated—yes we all believed in that then-- into a historical century long struggle with deep roots in the earliest days of this country and another Continent before that.
We won the fight against overt forced segregation but 40 years later far too many of us live in separate nations, separate and unequal. Institutional racism still persists, in our media as well. The struggle is unfinished.
Thinking back now, in another time, when for many in our country this March would be memorialized with just four words, “I have a Dream,” I realize how incredibly lucky I was to be a small cog in a wheel that was so much richer, so much deeper, and so often powered by song.
OUR SONGS, OUR SPIRIT
I learned all the songs that kept our spirits awake and remember them still. Not just our anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” but “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Will Never Turn Back.” We had amazing freedom singers and spoke of our goal as achieving the “Beloved Community.” Non-violence was our creed, democracy and human rights our objective.
last night I listened to a scratchy disc, with the voice of Bernice Johnson Reagon from Albany Georgia. She was singing “Over My Head, I see Freedom in the Air.” It sounded like it came out of some deep place in her heart. She could visualize freedom then and has done so much over years with groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock to convey the infectious spirit of those times.
It is a spirit that can’t be reduced to sound bites, speeches or slogans. She speaks of this music as “the reservoir from which blacks draw the songs they use in political and social struggle.” If you haven’t heard those songs or sang along, do so before you go. And clap when you do. They were the media of the movement.
WE WERE A DIVERSE BUT MIGHTY STREAM
History is written by winners and so we can be pleased today to have many TV programs and series like “Eyes on the Prize” chronicling those civil rights years, but usually only in terms of black emancipation. But we came from classes and contexts, from upwardly mobile homes, and deeply fragmented families, from great poverty and real wealth. We were diverse, a salad bow, not a melting pot, all part of the mighty stream worked to make this country live up to its ideals. We were. Mexican-Americans. Japanese Americans, gays and straights, Southern Whites and Northern kids like myself who were politicized and educated as we exercised what Dr King called, the right to fight for what is right.
I was lucky to be one of those fighters in my formative years, to be exposed to the culture of a people’s movement, to be exposed to and in a sense taught by great leaders and role models like King and Malcolm, who I was privileged to meet personally, but also by John Lewis and Bob Moses, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hammer, Stokely Carmichael. Danny Mitchell, Casey and Tom Hayden, Mary Varela, Frank Joyce, Eric Craven, Bob Knight, Granville Cherry, Jesse Gray, Bill Strickland and so many, many others.
That March on Washington was not just a political event, not just a day to mark and remember. It was for me and for so many others a personal milestone, a turning point of possibility, a part of the reason I am doing what I am today. It offered us an immersion in the work of social change that defined our lives and times. And still does. It made us what we are and history what it is.
It showed that movements from below can be more important than politics from above.
I never suffered the way many in our movement did or made the sacrifices that claimed lives and destroyed souls. I have no claim to, or desire for, recognition, I was just a foot soldier in the Movement Army, but I do feel I did my duty and served as an American of conscience who shared, for a brief moment in a glory that was bigger than us all.
I made a pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial in person twenty years ago for that anniversary and do so again this year but only with these sentences expressing my own spirit of nostalgia and dedication. Many of us never turned back even as we look back now.