This week, Americans will remember the 1963 March on Washington mostly for the watershed speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Original list of demands
Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education (and) the right to vote.
Withholding federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
Enforcement of the 14th Amendment — reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.
A new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.
A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.
“Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Organizing Manual No. 2.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King declared that the moment was now for freedom and equality, and that physical force must be met only by soul force, not violence.
In a way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a long time in the making, but mobilization didn’t begin until a few months before the event. It was very quickly put together by the leadership of Deputy Director Bayard Rustin, who took charge of day-to-day logistics.
An umbrella organization, the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, was created in June 1963, and soon included a defined leadership team called “the Big Six.” They were: A. Philip Randolph, the figurehead of the march; James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality; John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP; and Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he said.
John Lewis’ reflection
“In the days that followed, too much of the national press, in my opinion, focused not on the substance of the day but on the setting. Their stories portrayed the event as a big picnic, a hootenanny combined with the spirit of a revival prayer meeting. 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, the issues that had stirred up so much trouble in my own speech. It was revealing that the quotes they gathered from most of the congressional leaders on Capitol Hill dealt not with the legislator’s stand on the civil rights bill but instead focused on praising the ‘behavior’ and ‘peacefulness’ of the mass marchers.”
That speech, among the most famous and most quoted in American history, came at the end of the program that warm day, Aug. 28, after many others already had articulated a list of demands. King’s job was to rally the people, to inspire action, to foster unity.
Excerpts from ‘I Have a Dream’
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“(W)hen we allow freedom toring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
“It was such a magnetic speech; I felt real drawn into it,” said 69-year-old Martha Bostick Gunter, a Sumter native who, with her activist husband Blake Fishburne, attended the gathering of about 250,000 on their way to Goddard College in Vermont. “That would have been the first time I had ever seen him. In the part of the country where I was brought up, he was a ‘communist.’ My husband was called a communist.”
At the march, attended mostly by blacks but also many whites, Gunter did not feel like she was among communists. “There was a great sense of unity,” she said.
And when King spoke of his dreams, his words stirred deep sentiments in her, especially the line about the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting together at the table of brotherhood. “Coming from the Deep South, that really resonated with me,” Gunter said.
As Americans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, they will surely revisit King’s powerful words and reflect on all that has changed and all that still can change.
But it is easy to forget that the march had a specific, pragmatic purpose, that it included many other important speakers, that it stirred significant controversy and that it had an important precedent. The true significance of the March on Washington, then, is not only its passionate plea for equality, but its strong emphasis on jobs and fair wages, on extending the American Dream to all.
It was an event that rode the civil rights wave of discontent and helped galvanize a generation, providing a powerful push for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But, in a sense, it all started in 1941.
A. Philip Randolph was a socialist and organizer who formed and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union. He successfully pressured presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman into banning discrimination in the defense industries and outlawing segregation in the Armed Forces.
That effort, in 1941, was known as the March on Washington Movement. A massive protest rally in the nation’s capital had been planned for July of ’41 by Randolph and Bayard Rustin to advocate for fair treatment of blacks.
After Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25, prohibiting racial discrimination in the military, Randolph agreed to cancel the march. Flash forward to 1963.
Rustin was a proponent of nonviolence and an activist who had organized the first Freedom Ride in 1947 and helped start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in an effort to empower Martin Luther King. Like Randolph, he spoke of the need for a coalition between black activists and organized labor, insisting that the path to social and economic enfranchisement was paved with jobs.
Rustin was in charge of mobilization and logistics for the march. He invited young members of the Nonviolent Action Group on the Howard University campus to help. One of those students was Cleveland Sellers, of Denmark, S.C. Sellers would soon become a powerful leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In August 1963 Sellers was an 18-year-old budding activist, running errands and assisting organizers with administrative tasks. Now the president of Voorhees College, he displays on his office wall the program and buttons produced for the mass protest.
He said the march was a “respectable” protest action that garnered widespread support. What began as a deliberate challenge to federal authorities, a radical protest, became a popular expression of relatively mainstream liberal ideas as more and more people signed on and the Kennedy administration, initially opposed to the rally, endorsed it.
Roy Wilkins, the NAACP’s executive secretary, worried that the march was too confrontational, and he was reluctant to be a sponsor; he thought it was possible to cajole the government to do the right thing.
As word of the march spread, members of labor unions and church institutions, white liberals and others wanted to be part of it. And as more people joined the effort, they were admonished to “keep the rhetoric within bounds,” prompting some hard-line activists to charge that the march had been co-opted and compromised.
John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was one of many slated to give a speech. He intended to challenge the federal government, apply the concept of slavery to current conditions, threaten to “take matters into our own hands,” and allude to a symbolic second civil war, this one led by freedom fighters marching “through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.”
“We will pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy,” Lewis wrote in the original version of his remarks.
Union and religious leaders objected to the fiery rhetoric and demanded that Lewis tone it down. In a caucus hastily thrown together that included King, James Forman and march organizer Randolph, Lewis, a freedom rider who just two years before was beaten in Rock Hill as he exited a bus, relented, making extensive changes to his speech.
The Rev. Thomas M. Nesbitt Jr. of Morris Brown AME Church said he was most impressed with the discipline marchers showed.
“What stuck with me was the organization,” he said. “We got there without any problems, we did what we were asked to do, which was march in an orderly fashion. As we were marching we sang. We were attentive, we were polite. We were simply a mass of people who were there for a focused purpose.”
Nesbitt was a 17-year-old rising senior at Burke High School and a regular churchgoer. When local black leaders were looking for responsible young people to send to Washington, the Rev. Z.L. Grady, also of Morris Brown Church, recommended the young Nesbitt. An experience like this could nourish the mind of an aspiring minister, Grady thought.
Nesbitt was taken to Columbia where he caught one of several buses from South Carolina heading to the nation’s capital. Once in Washington, Nesbitt walked toward the Lincoln Memorial and found a spot about 250 yards back.
“I was very humbled and pleased that they had decided to send me,” Nesbitt said. King’s speech was the highlight of the day, but what impressed Nesbitt most was the marching, for this was an act of solidarity. “It was my first experience with anything like that in my life,” he said. “It was orderly, awesome, awe inspiring.”
But some black leaders didn’t think the march was very effective in advancing the cause.
“It was a sellout. It was a takeover,” Malcolm X said. It was “the Farce on Washington.” Sellers was among those who agreed, at least in part, with Malcolm X. While the march was successful, Sellers said, it was an exercise in moderation, and it disappointed some of the more radical players.
“Dr. King, who was introduced by A. Philip Randolph as ‘the moral leader of the nation,’ was the individual who profited most from the march,” Sellers wrote in his memoir. “He was a dignified, moderate man who still believed in the goodness of the government and its operators.”
This view, that the march had been a showcase of moderate or co-opted politics, has been challenged by William P. Jones in his new book, “The March on Washington.” Jones, citing recent scholarly work, argues that media coverage blunted the march’s broad political demands “and reduced its message to King’s optimistic Dream.” But those demands, Jones wrote, represented a significant departure from the status quo and prompted left-wing journalist Murray Kempton to remark, “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.”
Work left to do
Today, black leaders and others still are fighting for justice, jobs and full access to the democratic process, said Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP.
“There are so many issues on the table,” Bryant said — protection of voting rights, repeal of so-called stand-your-ground laws, unemployment, the dismantling of labor unions, mass incarceration and, in South Carolina, the continued presence of the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds.
To address such concerns, the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, in cooperation with the NAACP, organized a new March on Washington, which drew tens of thousands to the Mall on Saturday. A second event, the commemorative Let Freedom Ring ceremony organized by the King Center in Atlanta, is planned for Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the 1963 event, and will feature an appearance by President Barack Obama.
“It’s not just an anniversary march,” Bryant said. “The issues have changed, but we’re still marching.”
Fifty years later, Martha Gunter thinks back to that hot summer day, when she forgot to pack a sandwich and relied on the largess of fellow protesters, when she watched the speakers from the shade of a tree on the left side of the Lincoln Memorial, not very far back.
“It made me more aware of the specific issues,” Gunter said. “Growing up in the South I just didn’t really know those things.”
Fifty years later, much has changed. Gunter is a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir. It’s one way she has found to reinforce the solidarity she experienced that day in Washington.
Still, she said, the old hatreds and misunderstandings continue to fester. “There is just such animosity. That bothers me.”
In this combination of Associated Press file photos, at top, a large crowd marches for civil rights in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963; and at bottom, demonstrators march towards the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial during a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. Aging veterans of the original March on Washington gathered with younger generations Saturday amassing a crowd that in contrast was more female, more Hispanic, and more diverse by sexual orientation than in 1963. (AP Photo/File)×
In this combination of Associated Press file photos, at top, a large crowd marches for civil rights in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963; and at bottom, demonstrators march towards the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial during a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. Aging veterans of the original March on Washington gathered with younger generations Saturday amassing a crowd that in contrast was more female, more Hispanic, and more diverse by sexual orientation than in 1963.×
Martha Bostick Gunter×
Cleveland Sellers (far left) stands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael during a 1965 march in Mississippi. Sellers and Carmichael worked together as senior officers in the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee. Cleveland Sellers Jr. (far left) stands with Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael (right) in Mississippi during the June 1966 “March Against Fear.” (Photo provided by Cleveland Sellers)×
A button that Cleveland Sellers has framed in his office.×
Mementos from the March on Washington. (Brad Nettles/Staff)×
A view from the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington.×
Today Cleveland Sellers is president of Voorhees College.×
The Rev. Thomas Nesbitt Jr.×
Passengers and well-wishers on the platform at the Charleston train station on August 28, 1963. Passengers boarded a special train that carried people from several Southern cities to Washington, D.C., for the rally.×