The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a new day — on Aug. 28, 1963. That day brought a tremendous turning point for civil rights.
Sixty years ago came a peaceful uprising, magnificent in scale, the greatest American 20th-century gathering. Contrast that to the white supremacist mob that laid siege to the Capitol. Reflect upon that.
Everybody there felt joyous moments near the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial steps. It marked a century since President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed 4 million enslaved people.
Powerful symbolism, yes, yet Lincoln’s figure was behind. The March was moving forward.
Things were going badly in the Deep South. In Alabama, Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators, a sickening spectacle that spring.
A quarter of a million people came on buses and trains, bicycles and roller skates. From California to the New York Island. The Harlem vanguard and Southern Blacks, who bore Jim Crow segregation. Many white people marched, too.
Odetta and Marian Anderson sang on the same stage as young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Harry Belafonte and Paul Newman, James Baldwin and Sidney Poitier came. Rabbi Joachim Prinz remembered Hitler’s Germany as “a nation of silent onlookers.”
Bayard Rustin, a gay Black Quaker, was chief organizer.
President John F. Kennedy watched intently from his desk. His brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, feared violence. The city was closed. The police, National Guard and FBI were called out.
Ironic that the FBI, in a massive intelligence failure, never prepared for the white mob at the Capitol.
The March, aimed at Kennedy, had the spirit and blueprint of the 1913 Suffrage Parade, which welcomed Woodrow Wilson to Washington. The parade was a signal for social change and human rights led by a young Quaker, Alice Paul.
Let’s review some voices heard at the March, notably the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Women were excluded, even eminent Rosa Parks.
A. Philip Randolph was the movement’s elder. As head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he represented the March’s trade union component.
Randolph promised peace at the 1963 March because Black people knew the “discipline of struggle.”
The youngest speaker, John Lewis, 23, was set to give a fiery speech on Kennedy’s civil rights record: “Too little, too late,” Lewis planned to say, speaking for students.
The aging Randolph pleaded with Lewis to tone his rhetoric down: “I’ve waited all my life for this. … Please don’t ruin it.” Lewis, a future congressman, agreed.
King, 34, wrote his speech down to the last word, up all night. He’d have the last word as the August sun waned. Then the empowered throng would take the word home.
The text featured the phrase, “the fierce urgency of now,” which Barack Obama borrowed. King himself borrowed “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” from Bostonian abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Suddenly gospel singer Mahalia Jackson broke in: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Her call launched the speech like a river into an improvised bend — with flow and lyricism, just like jazz, an African American art form. That meandering into “I Have a Dream” made the speech one of the greatest ever given.
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream,” King stated in his rich baritone, not missing a beat: “I have a dream that even Mississippi … sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
“I Have a Dream” was in the moment and a vision for the ages. King challenged leaders to live up to our own founding documents.
After the breathtaking day was done, March leaders went to the White House. Julian Bond said, “Many white Americans had never heard a full speech by any Black person.”
President Kennedy welcomed guests, delighted that not one arrest for unrest was reported.
Said Kennedy of King: “He’s damned good.”
Jamie Stiehm is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.