5 Secrets of the March on Washington

Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the planned March on Washington program, points to a map showing the line of march for the Aug. 28 demonstration for civil rights. Rustin took part in a news conference at the New York City Headquarters in New York on Aug. 24, 1963.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
See more stories about...
Matthew Cooper
Aug. 21, 2013, 2:53 p.m.

The March on Wash­ing­ton, which took place 50 years ago this month, is bathed in a warm glow for good reas­on. But the story of that day, bey­ond Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is sur­pris­ing, funny, poignant.

Here are a few secrets — or little-re­marked-upon as­pects — of the day worth keep­ing in mind as the 50th-an­niversary com­mem­or­a­tions ap­proach.

King’s Speech Was Im­pro­vised — and Edgy.

All schoolkids are taught the “con­tent of their char­ac­ter” part of King’s ad­dress. After the march, when John F. Kennedy wel­comed King and oth­er civil-rights lead­ers to the White House, he said to the rev­er­end: “I have a dream.” “That was like Kennedy say­ing ‘You nailed it,’” says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer prize-win­ning King bio­graph­er.

King knew he had hit his mark, Branch told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. But while the “dream” sec­tion of the speech is best-re­membered, the first part of King’s speech had been an angry lament about the con­di­tion of blacks in Amer­ica, which he likened to a check re­turned for in­suf­fi­cient funds.

The “dream” por­tion of the speech was semi-im­pro­vised. King had used the dream idea be­fore, in speeches earli­er in 1963, in­clud­ing one to black in­sur­ance agents. King owes a debt to the Bible’s Book of Isai­ah, from which he bor­rowed. But much of the speech that day was ori­gin­al. King also left out some of the an­gri­er and clunki­er lines from his pre­pared speech. For ex­ample: “And so today, let us go back to our com­munit­ies as mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tion­al as­so­ci­ation for the ad­vance­ment of cre­at­ive dis­sat­is­fac­tion.”

For what it’s worth, The New York Times gave King top billing the next day. The Wash­ing­ton Post de­voted its front page to oth­er lead­ers of the march.

D.C. Was Ready for Ri­ots.

The pro­spect of all of those pro­test­ers com­ing to Wash­ing­ton scared the crap out of the Dis­trict of Columbia. As Branch has noted, there were not only 4,000 fed­er­al troops poised in D.C. and 15,000 para­troop­ers on standby, but the city’s li­quor stores were closed for the first time since Pro­hib­i­tion.

Most D.C. busi­nesses shut down for the day. Of course, the day turned out to be in­cred­ibly peace­ful. News­pa­pers favored the word “or­derly.” And it was, which helped give the civil-rights move­ment even more mor­al force. The or­gan­izers of the march even offered to help clean up af­ter­wards, but the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice, which con­trols the monu­ment, turned them down.

A Gay Man Led the Way.

The or­gan­iz­ing geni­us be­hind the March on Wash­ing­ton was civil-rights vet­er­an Ba­yard Rustin. What is less-known now, or then, is that he was gay. That might have not been known at all had Rustin not been ar­res­ted on what were then called mor­als charges (he was ar­res­ted in 1953 along with two oth­er men in a parked car in Pas­adena, Cal­if.)

King had kept Rustin at a dis­tance un­der pres­sure from oth­er black lead­ers. The late Rep. Adam Clayton Pow­ell Jr. of Har­lem had forced Rustin off of the board of the South­ern Chris­ti­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence and Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, didn’t want Rustin run­ning the 1963 march.

But Rustin’s ment­or, A. Philip Ran­dolph, head of the Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Port­ers, in­sisted. It was Ran­dolph’s idea to have a March on Wash­ing­ton in 1941 to protest se­greg­a­tion — and it was called off only when Pres­id­ent Roosevelt de­seg­reg­ated the de­fense in­dustry. So when the idea sur­faced of a March on Wash­ing­ton in 1963, to de­mand justice on the 100th an­niversary of the end of slavery, Ran­dolph’s word coun­ted above all oth­ers. And it was Rustin who did much of the speak­ing that Au­gust day.

Sen. Strom Thur­mond de­nounced Rustin as a com­mun­ist and ho­mo­sexu­al in a floor state­ment, but the press didn’t pick it up. Rustin died in 1987 and Pres­id­ent Obama will present him, posthum­ously, with the Medal of Free­dom.

Auto­ma­tion and Labor Were a Factor.

It’s of­ten for­got­ten that the March on Wash­ing­ton was a march for free­dom and jobs. The un­em­ploy­ment rate that Au­gust was 5.4 per­cent, low by today’s stand­ards but high­er than it had been earli­er in the ‘60s; then, as now, black un­em­ploy­ment re­mained much high­er than the na­tion­al in­dex.

Many of the speak­ers at the March on Wash­ing­ton in­veighed against “auto­ma­tion” dis­pla­cing work­ers — a har­binger of today’s out­sourcing. But des­pite the jobs fo­cus, or­gan­ized labor was di­vided. Wal­ter Re­uth­er, the head of the United Auto Work­ers, was one of the of­fi­cial lead­ers of the march, and he led his own rally in Michigan earli­er that sum­mer.

But des­pite UAW en­thu­si­asm — and Ran­dolph was, of course, also a uni­on lead­er — the AFL-CIO was AWOL. George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, didn’t sup­port the march, and the AFL-CIO’s of­fices were shuttered that day. The march­ers called for nondis­crim­in­a­tion not only in pub­lic fa­cil­it­ies like res­taur­ants but also in uni­ons, and many of those rep­res­en­ted by the AFL-CIO, es­pe­cially the build­ing trades, shut out blacks.

Wo­men Had a Sep­ar­ate March.

There was just one of­fi­cial wo­man speak­er at the March on Wash­ing­ton. There were wo­men sing­ers, in­clud­ing Mari­an An­der­son, who had been fam­ously blocked from speak­ing be­fore the Daugh­ters of the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion in 1939 and was in­vited to speak at the Lin­coln Me­mori­al by Elean­or Roosevelt.

But only one wo­man was in­vited to speak at the march, and that was Medgar Evers‘ wid­ow, Myrlie. She wasn’t able to come, so an­oth­er move­ment or­gan­izer, Daisy Lee Bates, spoke 142 words.

There was a sep­ar­ate march on In­de­pend­ence Av­en­ue for wo­men in the move­ment that in­cluded Dorothy Height, the late lead­er of the Coun­cil of Negro Wo­men.

John Lewis Re­wrote His Speech.

Rep. John Lewis of Geor­gia, the civil-rights vet­er­an, will be every­where dur­ing the an­niversary, an eld­er states­man of the move­ment.

In Au­gust 1963, Lewis was head of the Stu­dent Non­vi­ol­ent Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mit­tee and one of the lead­ers of the march sched­uled to speak that day. But the night be­fore the rally, oth­er lead­ers caught a glimpse of his re­marks. The first ver­sion of his speech in­censed many of the oth­er lead­ers of the march, in­clud­ing UAW’s Re­uth­er, who thought it would back­fire on the move­ment by ali­en­at­ing al­lies and giv­ing en­emies a lot to work with.

Lewis, in his ori­gin­al text, said that Pres­id­ent Kennedy’s civil-rights plan was “too little, too late” and it called for the civil- rights work­ers to march through Dixie “like Sher­man.” Would Lewis’s un­spoken words have changed the day? Would King’s?

We’ll nev­er know.

What We're Following See More »
FIRST WOMAN NOMINATED BY MAJOR PARTY
Hillary Clinton Accepts the Democratic Nomination for President
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It is with humility, determination, and boundless confidence in America’s promise that I accept your nomination for president," said Hillary Clinton in becoming the first woman to accept a nomination for president from a major party. Clinton gave a wide-ranging address, both criticizing Donald Trump and speaking of what she has done in the past and hopes to do in the future. "He's taken the Republican party a long way, from morning in America to midnight in America," Clinton said of Trump. However, most of her speech focused instead on the work she has done and the work she hopes to do as president. "I will be a president of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving, the successful," she said. "For those who vote for me and for those who don't. For all Americans together."

COUNTER-CHANTS AT THE READY
Protesters Make Good on Threat to Disrupt Speech
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Supporters of Bernie Sanders promised to walk out, turn their backs, or disrupt Hillary Clinton's speech tonight, and they made good immediately, with an outburst almost as soon as Clinton began her speech. But her supporters, armed with a handy counter-chant cheat sheet distributed by the campaign, immediately began drowning them out with chants of "Hillary, Hillary!"

SUFFOLK POLL
New Survey Shows Clinton Up 9 in Pennsylvania
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

If a new poll is to be believed, Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania. A new Suffolk University survey shows her ahead of Donald Trump, 50%-41%. In a four-way race, she maintains her nine-point lead, 46%-37%. "Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, going back to Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992. Yet it is a rust belt state that could be in play, as indicated by recent general-election polling showing a close race."

Source:
$500 MILLION PROJECT
Obama Library Heading to Jackson Park in Chicago
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Barack Obama has chosen Jackson Park, a lakefront park that once hosted the world’s fair on the city’s South Side, for his $500 million presidential library, according to a person familiar with the matter."

Source:
THREE NIGHTS RUNNING
Democrats Beat Republicans in Convention Ratings So Far
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Wednesday was the third night in a row that the Democratic convention enjoyed a ratings win over the Republican convention last week. Which might have prompted a fundraising email from Donald Trump exhorting supporters not to watch. "Unless you want to be lied to, belittled, and attacked for your beliefs, don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," the email read. "Instead, help Donald Trump hold her accountable, call out her lies and fight back against her nasty attacks."

Source:
×