When my aunt Eleanor and I arrived in Washington, D.C., on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963, and began the long walk from Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial, we were immediately struck by the sheer number of people around us and how cordial everyone was to each other.
The "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," which took place 50 years ago Wednesday, brought 250,000 people to Washington, D.C., in what was then the largest protest ever seen in the nation's capital. Although the news media and the Kennedy administration had expressed fear over the potential of violence when so many people would gather to protest, the crowd was peaceful, even joyous.
The march was the culmination of decades of civil rights activism. As early as 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had proposed a massive demonstration in Washington to protest job discrimination in war industries and segregation in the U.S. armed forces. It took an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlawing racial discrimination in defense work to get Randolph and his supporters to call off the march.
By 1963, protests against discrimination, Freedom Rides, boycotts of segregated businesses and attempts to register black voters had been taking place for years throughout the South. Most resulted in arrests of the demonstrators by state and local police, as the federal government failed to intervene in any meaningful way. But it wasn't until that spring that the national news media began taking notice of the brutality of the police, the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the nonviolent courage of thousands of ordinary black Americans who were resisting the evils of segregation and prejudice.
As a 15-year-old living in New York, I had watched in horror as the evening news broadcasts and the front pages of newspapers showed police in Birmingham, Ala., turning their dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on nonviolent protesters – many of them high school kids like me. And when, in June 1963, Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Mississippi, was murdered, shot in the back by a cowardly assassin, I knew I had to get involved.
My first action was taking part in the March on Washington. My aunt got us two seats on a railway car chartered by Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union, one of New York's most racially integrated trade unions.
Perhaps my youthful naivete was coloring my observations, but it seemed as if the black folks looked proud to be taking part in the massive protest and encouraged that so many whites had joined them. As for the whites, who made up about a quarter of the marchers, I felt we recognized that black people should not have to fight alone against racial prejudice and were honored to be part of such an important event.
The crowd was so enormous – filling the entire area around the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and then spreading beneath the nearby trees, fields and streets – we never got close enough to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to see any of the speakers. Actually, the only view I got of the speakers was when I looked inside one of the many media tents that had been put up nearby and saw TV monitors carrying news reports of the protest.
From our vantage point, however, we ended up being close to some important people who were also taking part in the demonstration. Actors Paul Newman and James Garner were there, standing off to the side, chatting, uninterrupted by autograph seekers. They have both held a special place in my heart ever since.
We saw a delegation from Congress arrive at the Lincoln Memorial to show their support for the march. It was led by New York's liberal Republican senator, Jacob Javits. (It's hard to remember that there once was a political species known as a liberal Republican, who supported civil rights and fought against prejudice, rather than pandered to it.)
But we were able to hear the many speakers and entertainers over loudspeakers. Still, it was hard to focus. The singing of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary and the speeches by civil rights notables such as John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers flew right by me in the sultry heat. It wasn't until after the event that I learned that Lewis, who later became a member of Congress from Georgia, was persuaded to delete from his speech any criticisms of the Kennedy administration over its inaction and timidity on civil rights.
By the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the last speakers, was introduced, my aunt and I had just started our long walk back to the train station. But when he began to talk, we stopped to listen. Although we didn't know at the time that King's "I have a dream" speech would be viewed as one of the greatest orations in American history, we were moved by the power of his rhetoric and the beauty of his vision.
I don't remember much about the train ride back to New York, except that my fellow marchers all seemed pleased with what had taken place, even if many were exhausted from all the walking and standing around in the oppressive Washington heat. We all knew we had just made history.
What was the short-term legacy of the March on Washington?
Less than three weeks after the march, the KKK exploded a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a church that was closely aligned with the civil rights movement, killing four young girls. Outrage over that barbarous act and the continued efforts of the movement led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and banned discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the same law that was recently gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Both pieces of landmark legislation were steered through Congress by President Lyndon Johnson after the assassination of President John Kennedy.
The greater legacy of the March on Washington and the civil rights movement is more problematic. There are more African American voters and elected officials than ever before in our nation's history, and we have elected and re-elected our first black president. Overt racial discrimination has largely ended.
Yet for all of the civil rights movement's accomplishments, the persistence of racism and poverty in American society today is impossible to ignore. We see it in the unconscionable rates of unemployment and incarceration facing black youths, in the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case, and in the efforts of some Republicans to portray President Barack Obama as frightfully different or "other" than an ordinary (read: white) citizen.
Personally, the march inspired me to get more serious about the civil rights movement. It placed me on an activist pathway that included working with the Congress of Racial Equality and Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, taking part in demonstrations against segregation and police brutality, and organizing tenants living in slum housing in New York City's East Harlem. This work led me directly to even greater involvement in the peace movement during the war in Vietnam.
This week, we will all be bombarded – in a good way – with excerpts from King's magnificent address at the March on Washington, particularly his dream that his children would one day live in a country where "they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
But I fear that coverage of the march's anniversary will neglect another part of King's message, his call for the struggle to continue:
"As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
"No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Bruce Dancis is a former entertainment editor of The Sacramento Bee. This piece was adapted from his forthcoming memoir, "Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War," which will be published in March 2014, by Cornell University Press.