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The Road to Civil Rights
Getting to the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were rarely unified on tactics or strategy. The NAACP preferred litigation to marches and protests. Dr. King believed in nonviolent protest, as he explained in a letter he wrote on April 16, 1963. He was serving in a Birmingham jail cell after being arrested during mass protests that included large numbers of students:
You may well ask, 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored . . . . History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. . . . We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
In Birmingham, the peaceful protests provoked Bull Connor to an excess that shocked the Nation as television, newspapers, and magazines displayed images of fire hoses and dogs unleashed on students, women, and other nonviolent marchers. The second week of May 1963, protesters flooded the central business district. Taylor Branch described the result:
King's demonstrators literally carpeted Birmingham's downtown business district that second week of May. Having no place to put them, police officers in their midst shrugged helplessly to the city's business leaders, who were traumatized by the sudden evaporation of normalcy and commerce alike. Nearly two hundred reporters had converged from as far away as Germany and Japan. "We are not sitting idly by," President Kennedy's spokesman announced tersely in Washington. "We just can't say anything." Privately, Kennedy and several members of his Cabinet were calling the heads of corporations with subsidiaries in Birmingham, urging them to enter negotiations with King, and on Friday, May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth announced triumphantly that Birmingham "has reached accord with its conscience." Birmingham's merchants had accepted a schedule for desegregating their dressing rooms and lunch counters-even hiring Negro clerks. "Now this is an amazing thing!" King cried out at the mass meeting. [Branch, Taylor, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, 1999, p. 80-81]
In May 1963, the different philosophies among Civil Rights leaders came together in an unexpected way in Jackson, Mississippi. A small sit-in on May 28 grew to major proportions dominated by African-American students, many defying their parents, marching through the city into the arms of police who carried hundreds of them off to jail, taking the overflow in garbage trucks. The New York Times captured the day in a six-word headline: "Jackson Police Jail 600 Negro Children."
Medger Evers was the leader of the movement in Jackson, but as an official of the NAACP, he could not endorse marches for the purpose of mass arrests. He begged Roy Wilkins to reconsider NAACP policy, but Wilkins hesitated before relenting, as Branch explained:
Secretly-and not for the first time-Evers collaborated by phone with King. He told his New York office that King might come to Jackson if the NAACP avoided command, and the specter of such a coup helped motivate Wilkins to fly to Jackson on the evening of the six hundred arrests. He did not tell his wife, to spare her the worry and himself her objections.
The Justice Department rushed advisors to the area, including Thelton Henderson, the Civil Rights Division's first African-American staff attorney. Police arrested Wilkins and Henderson. Wilkins bailed out and returned to New York.
This moment of collective strategy gave Dr. King the idea that the time had come to take the movement national with a mass protest that would go beyond the localized battles that saw advances move city-by-city. He speculated that if he could get A. Philip Randolph, who had threatened marches to achieve his ends, but had never organized one, to support the idea, the NAACP would agree to the proposal. Branch summarized a conference call among Dr. King and advisors that summarized the idea at its genesis:
"We are on a breakthrough," he said, "and we need a mass protest." King wanted to think beyond individual movements. "We are ready to go on a national level with our protests," he said . . . . King fed off the idea in a rush. If [Randolph] endorsed a giant rally, Randolph's stature as the unifying senior presence among the quarrelsome civil rights leaders would make it difficult for Wilkins and the NAACP to withhold support, especially now that Wilkins was newly baptized [by his arrest] for protest. "Roy will only act under extreme pressure," said King. Now there was an opening to get Wilkins behind a giant national protest that could concentrate, symbolize, and define the spreading energy of local movements before they dissipated or something went wrong. That in turn could push President Kennedy into being a crusader who could move the country and a recalcitrant, fearful Congress. They agreed that it would take a crowd of a hundred thousand to generate enough political force, and that it would take at least until August to mobilize. [Pillar, p. 101-102]
Randolph and Wilkins agreed to sponsor the march, along with CORE,Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Urban League, and SNCC. They agreed on the goals of the march, which was scheduled for Wednesday, August 28:
As author Thomas Gentile pointed out in his history of the march, the Kennedy Administration opposed the planners' initial goal of holding the demonstration on Capitol Hill. The Administration also wanted to avoid a "march," suggesting instead a rally on the grounds of the Washington Monument. As a compromise, the Administration and organizers agreed on the Washington Monument grounds as a rallying point for a short march of less than a mile to the Lincoln Memorial. [Gentile, Thomas, March on Washington: August 28, 1963, New Day Publications, 1983, p. 65-66]
Although the Lincoln Memorial had symbolic significance for march organizers, the grounds were not ideal for a mass rally. The long Reflecting Pool occupies much of the space before the Memorial. Trees along both sides of the Reflecting Pool block the view for most participants in any large event staged on the memorial grounds. In later years, event organizers would post large television monitors around the grounds so participants could watch events they could not see directly, but that was not an option for August 28, 1963.
As August 28 approached, organizers and officials planned for a crowd of about 150,000. Housing had to be arranged, especially with African-American families in the area. With stores closed, arrangements had to be made for the marchers' needs. Over 100 portable toilets were set up along with 16 first-aid stations. Spouts were attached to fire hydrants so marchers would have access to drinking water.
News organizations began extensive coverage:
Like other formative experiences of the mass communications era-the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth in 1953, the presidential conventions, the dramas of astronauts rocketing from launchpad to splashdown-the Freedom march commanded national attention by preempting regularly scheduled television programs. Broadcast networks voluntarily surrendered their revenues, and gathered their most important news correspondents to preside over a transcendent ritual of American identity. As the first ceremony of such magnitude ever initiated and dominated by Negroes, the march also was the first to have its nature wholly misperceived in advance.
Dominant expectations ran from paternal apprehension to dread. On Meet the Press, television reporters grilled Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King about widespread foreboding that "it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting." In a preview article, Life magazine declared that the capital was suffering "its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run." President Kennedy's advance man, Jerry Bruno, positioned himself to cut the power to the public address system if rally speeches proved incendiary. The Pentagon readied nineteen thousand troops in the suburbs; the city banned all sales of alcoholic beverages; hospitals made room for riot casualties by postponing elective surgery. More than 80 percent of the day's business revenue would be lost to closed and empty stores. Although D.C. Stadium stood nearly four miles from the Lincoln Memorial rally site, Major League Baseball canceled in advance two night games between the Minnesota Twins and the last-place Senators. With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly bigger than the Kennedy inauguration two years earlier. [Pillar, p. 131-132]
District officials shifted prisoners from the D.C. Jail to Lorton Reformatory in Virginia to make room for protesters in the event of mass arrests. ["Throng Gets Quick Start," The Evening Star, August 28, 1963]
The reality would be far different, first in size. Nearly 250,000 people would crowd around the Reflecting Pool and the area beyond to face the Lincoln Memorial for the ceremony easily surpassing the 100,000 that Dr. King thought would be a sign of success. Although predominantly African-American, the crowd included an estimated 60,000 white participants, including church groups and union members. Between 75 and 100 Members of Congress attended.
But first, the marchers had to get to Washington from around the country by road, rail, and air.
Organizers had arranged for buses to bring thousands of marchers to Washington. Gentile described how the transportation system accommodated the marchers:
Buses from Boston left at 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday night for a long, 8-hour ride to Washington, but there were others who took longer bus rides from places like Milwaukee, Little Rock, and St. Louis. New York City was active throughout the night in a scene reminiscent of a holiday eve. Port Authority Bus Station and Penn Station were crowded with travelers, rare for the middle of the night on a Wednesday in August. At Penn Station, where special trains had left at 2:00 a.m., and again shortly after dawn, authorities reported the largest early morning crowd since the end of World War II. At 1:30 a.m. buses began leaving Yankee Stadium for the 5-½ hour drive to Washington. Buses left Queens at 1:00 a.m., Yonkers at 4:00 a.m., and Brooklyn at 5:30 a.m. All of these charters were sponsored by the NAACP . . . . In addition, other chartered buses were leaving from all over the city, most from the 143rd Street Armory, where an incredible 450 buses had assembled. The Lincoln Tunnel had a middle of the night traffic jam when the buses started rolling at 1:30 a.m . . . .
Buses left from all over the Philadelphia area at 7 a.m. They then rendezvoused outside the city on U.S. Route 40. Chartered trains had left Philadelphia's 30th Street Station by 6:15 a.m. A number of busloads of marchers left Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of the March . . . .
By dawn, State Police in Pikesville, Maryland reported traffic very heavy on U.S. 40, the Pulaski Highway, between the Delaware state line and Baltimore, and even heavier on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway: "Almost a continuous line of buses on the expressway," police said. "By 8:00 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. [March, p. 184-186]
For those coming from the New York area and locations further north, planners needed to know how many buses would be on the road for the 6-hour trip. At the Howard Johnson's at Cranbury, New Jersey, the only charter bus stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, preparations had been underway for a week. Parking had been expanded, additional drinking fountains and comfort units had been installed, and temporary workers taken on. Visitors had been warned to bring box lunches, but The New York Times reported that the Howard Johnson's was ready for a big increase in customers:
Refreshments on hand include 6,000 half-pint containers of soft drinks, 2,400 half-pints of milk, 2,400 ham sandwiches, 12,000 frankfurters and 5,400 chicken halves.
Officials were worried about the perennial bottleneck in Baltimore where U.S. 40, one of the main routes through the city, followed city streets to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, which had been opened in November 1957 under the Patapsco River:
A potential bottleneck is the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. It has seven toll gates and six southbound entrances, but only two entrances lead in from Route 40, which is expected to be the main road used by the civil rights groups going to the capital. [Arnold, Martin, "Road Facilities to Aid Caravans," The New York Times, August 28, 1963]
One reporter, Fred Powledge, accompanied African-Americans who boarded six buses in Birmingham for the 750-mile trip to Washington:
The 260 demonstrators, of all ages, carried picnic baskets, water jugs, Bibles and a major weapon - their willingness to march, sing and pray in protest against discrimination. They gathered early this morning [August 27] in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, where state troopers once used fire hoses and dogs to put down their demonstrations. It was peaceful in the Birmingham park as the marchers waited for the buses. The police, now part of a moderate city power structure, directed traffic around the square and did not interfere with the gathering . . . .
An old man commented on the 20-hour ride, which was bound to be less than comfortable: "You forget we Negroes have been riding buses all our lives. We don't have the money to fly in airplanes."
Many had never been out of Alabama and were looking forward to seeing Washington. An 81-year old Birmingham resident said he was looking forward to seeing the White House as much as the march. A 20-year old upholsterer told Powledge, "I guess you could call me a combination freedom rider and tourist on this trip." One middle-aged woman had been given the day off as a white woman's maid. "She said have a good time," the woman told Powledge.
The reporter added of the trip:
The driver of the lead bus was white. He paid strict attention to his duties. On the road to Knoxville, he was stopped by a highway patrolman for speeding 75 miles an hour. But the officer let him off. [Powledge, Fred, "Alabamians Gay on Bus Journey," The New York Times, August 28, 1963]
Coverage of the trip continued in a second article:
The demonstrators from Alabama sang freedom songs on their long trip from Birmingham, but for the most part they talked. There were hours of recollections about last spring's civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham.
One of the six busloads of Alabamians moaned almost en masse when a white policeman stopped the bus to give instructions on the outskirts of Washington.
But when the bus approached the march area and a smartly uniformed Negro military policeman gave further directions, there was a different reaction. "Now that's what I call good police work," said one of the marchers.
As the delegation from Alabama pulled into Washington, some passengers expressed regret that they had no banners flying from their buses. Many of the other buses had banners and signs.
"They ought to know who we are," said one man from Birmingham. "After all, we're the ones who started the whole freedom movement."
"Yeah," replied a fellow passenger, "but can you see us getting through Alabama with signs all over these buses? We'll let 'em know who we are once we get to the Washington Monument." ["Marchers Sing and Voice Hope on Way to Washington Rally," The New York Times, August 29, 1963, no byline]
One of the riders, Hazel Mangle Rivers, had paid $8 for her ticket, "one-tenth of her husband's weekly salary." She had always believed in civil rights, but "one day she realized that the national movement concerned her as an individual." Since then, she had participated in mass meetings, picketing, and boycotts. She had been arrested twice.
Mrs. Rivers "was determined to march on Washington," but she was impressed by Washington's civility:
"The people are lots better up here than they are down South," Mrs. Rivers said. "They treat you much nicer. Why, when I was out there at the march a white man stepped on my foot, and he said, "Excuse me," and I said "Certainly!"
"That's the first time that has ever happened to me. I believe that was the first time a white person has ever really been nice to me." ["Marcher From Alabama," The New York Times, August 29, 1963]
Some incidents occurred as participants closed in on Washington. Washington's Evening Star newspaper reported:
In Jessup, Md., a motorist allegedly drove his car into a group of 12 marchers hiking toward Washington along U.S. 1 and was arrested by Howard County police, but the marchers continued on into the city. [The driver was charged with assault and disorderly conduct.]
At least six chartered Greyhound buses loaded with marchers were delayed in Hagerstown, Md., because there were not enough relief drivers to complete the trip from points West. Four relief drivers were rounded up at the change point to bring some marchers on to Washington, but two other busloads were temporarily stranded.
Washington's bus traffic was heavy as the marchers swarmed into the city. Trailways handled 40 buses carrying more than 1,500 marchers, arriving at intervals during the morning, from New York City. The buses went directly to the vast section of Northwest Washington set aside for bus parking, and discharged their passengers near the march area, to wait for them until evening.
Greyhound also was routing buses directly to the bus parking area in Foggy Bottom. Those buses included: 10 from Boston, 15 from Cleveland, 6 from Memphis, 18 from Winston-Salem, 20 from New York, and an unknown number from Norfolk . . . . More than 100 buses came from points throughout Maryland with an estimated 6,000 Free Staters, mainly from Baltimore, Annapolis and Cambridge.
One of the buses was stoned by three young people on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near the Bladensburg turnoff. The stones broke one window but did not cause any injuries. The U.S. Park Police, who have jurisdiction on the parkway, had arrested the youths, who lived in Bladensburg. The police "said they had no reason to believe the busload of civil rights advocates was singled out for stoning since all types and sizes of buses regularly are used as targets for youngsters."
Many people drove their cars into the city:
Out-of-town cars were numerous beyond count, despite police pleas that marchers not bring their own automobiles to Washington. Many out-of-town cars bore distinctive banners. Their license plates indicated most of them were from Maryland and Virginia, nearby Southern States and States from Pennsylvania to New England.
To clear the way for the marchers, police had banned parking in the downtown and Monument-Memorial area. Still, they had to tow 75 cars out of the march area to impoundment lots.
Once in Washington, marchers had to get to the Washington Monument grounds. They were expected to walk, not march:
One group of marchers, about 75 strong-from Wisconsin-which debarked from their bus at the Mount George Baptist Church, 514 Fourth street S.E., were cautioned while walking to the Monument grounds via Constitution avenue past the Capitol not to raise their placards. Two marchers were carrying signs above their heads and complied immediately with the request of Capitol police.
Many government workers had taken the day off, while many tourists who would normally be sightseeing stayed out of the city. Traffic moved into the city more freely than expected on this Wednesday, with only short-lived congestion occurring on three arteries into the city:
Traffic along Pennsylvania avenue . . . was about what could be expected in the middle of any Sunday morning when the first tourists cruise up and down sightseeing.
At Fifteenth and K streets, usually a welter of vehicles bumper-to-bumper [during a weekday], a lone military policeman directed what traffic there was. [City transit buses] cruised along K street with six or seven passengers, instead of the usual standing room only crowds.
At the Capitol, policemen were stationed about 100 feet apart, but the grounds seemed deserted. There were many vacancies among the parking places reserved for Congressional employees. Missing also from the area were the long lines of tourist buses that bring thousands of sightseers on normal mornings.
The WMAL [radio] police helicopter reported that Shirley Highway [I-395 in Virginia leading into the District] at 8:45 a.m. had never been so free of traffic at that time during a weekday.
At one point in the morning "rush" period, only seven cars were moving along the Whitehurst Freeway east of Key Bridge [in Georgetown]. Normally traffic along this stretch would be moving at a snail's pace.
Although commuter buses were able to keep to their schedules downtown for the most part, some had to take alternate routes because officials had closed Arlington Memorial Bridge, which deposits traffic from Virginia into the District behind the Lincoln Memorial, and main arteries in the immediate area north and south of the march site, including Constitution Avenue. ["Throng Gets Quick Start" and "3 Youths Stone Marchers' Bus," The Evening Star, August 28, 1963]
Writing in The New York Times, Joseph A. Loftus agreed that, "Traffic control was close to flawless." What little congestion occurred on the main arteries into the city had been short-lived:
Some came by dawn's early light.
The freedom march was a thin line then. Nor was it long. Viewed from a helicopter, the grounds around the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were a lush green, dotted by a few early arrivals. Traffic was light on all arteries and moved swiftly.
Slowly the tempo rose. By 10, the inpouring was tremendous. This went on for two hours. The great crush of humanity on the monument grounds spilled over into Connecticut Avenue and edged westward like a great lava flow.
Connecticut Avenue, an artery for Maryland commuters, is ordinarily four lanes of screeching brakes in the rush hour. Today there was plenty of bumper room, although traffic had not quite thinned down to the density of a Sunday morning . . . .
Traffic control was close to flawless. Some congestion occurred on three arteries leading into the city, but it was short-lived . . . .
The Washington-Baltimore parkway, a high-density artery any business day, showed thin, swift movements at 7:30 . . . . Beginning about 10, the parkway from Baltimore and points north began to choke up a bit. But by 11:15 or earlier, traffic flowed swiftly straight for the monument grounds. There were almost as many buses as private cars in the southbound lanes. On they came in singles and sixes, and once a cluster of eight.
District police had tried to estimate the number of buses the city would have to accommodate:
Every police chief in the land had been queried on the teletype network. Captain [Thomas I.] Herlihy had checked with Greyhound and Trailways and with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The estimate was 800 to 900. Instead, more than 1,500 buses came.
"The police estimated that more than 175,000 persons had jammed into the few acres east of the memorial and that 25,000 were scattered." The city had accommodated larger crowds, including 750,000 for President Eisenhower's inaugural events, "but most of them were spectators. Today, nearly all were participants." Loftus added, "Besides, they rolled in and out within a few hours." He continued:
They were parked in reserved spaces long [sic] the Mall and around the Ellipse south of the White House. The monument grounds were not far off, except for those who had spent the night on the road. [Loftus, Joseph A., "Delays are few and Short-Lived," The New York Times, August 29, 1963]
The crowd included many celebrities. Branch wrote:
[M]ovement veterans absorbed revelatory homage from palpable symbols of white prestige - the television cameras, movie stars, and dearest edifices of American democracy. A chorus of news cameras clicked as James Garner pushed through the crowd hand in hand with Negro actress Diahann Carroll; they were among dozens who had arrived on the Hollywood "celebrity plane" organized by Harry Belafonte and Clarence Jones. Even those who had attended a hundred mass meetings never had witnessed anything like Marlon Brando on the giant stage, holding up for the world an actual cattle prod from Gadsden as an indictment of segregationist hatred.
The day's events began at 10 a.m. with the folksinger Joan Baez performing the spiritual "Oh Freedom." She was followed by Odetta, who sang "I'm On My Way." The group Peter, Paul, and Mary performed their hit version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," with Dylan appearing next to perform his new song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," about the murder of Medgar Evers. (Evers had been murdered on June 12, 1963, just after pulling into his driveway following a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Stepping out of his car carrying NAACP t-shirts that read JIM CROW MUST GO, he was shot by Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Klan. Two all-white juries deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt in 1964, but he was finally convicted for his crime in 1994.)
Although organizers had wanted to stage a short march from the Washington Monument grounds to the Lincoln Memorial, participants began streaming to the rally site long before planned.
The formal rally began at 1:15 p.m. with the singing of the National Anthem. Gentile summarized the early stages:
[After the invocation] and continually interspersed throughout the afternoon, protest leaders and celebrities were introduced to the appreciative crowd. Some gave short unscheduled speeches, like Birmingham's Fred Shuttlesworth, who spoke first, King's associate, the reverend Ralph David Abernathy, comedian Dick Gregory, and [ex-patriot singer] Josephine Baker. Charlton Heston read the statement prepared by James Baldwin regarding the support of the artistic and entertainment community. Burt Lancaster unfurled a scroll he and Baldwin had brought from Paris signed by 1500 overseas Americans in support of the march. [March, p. 222]
Randolph, the chairman of the march, was the first scheduled speaker. He called the marchers "the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom." A Tribute to Women followed, with Randolph introducing several prominent women, including Diane Nash (now Diane Nash Bevel) and Rosa Parks. After Randolph cited Medger Evers' widow, who was not in attendance, Dylan again sang his new song. Odetta, Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed again.
John Lewis, the Freedom Rider, had written a fiery speech that took aim at the Kennedy Administration's proposed Civil Rights Act. President Kennedy had introduced the bill in a television and radio speech on June 11. He had said:
It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal . . . .
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.
The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives.
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.
Individuals could do much, but they needed help at the Federal level:
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public-hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.
This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do . . . .
He would, he said, ask Congress to authorize the Federal Government "to participate more fully in lawsuits" to end segregation in public education as required under the Supreme Court's Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in 1954:
The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment.
The proposal also would call for voting rights for all Americans.
Lewis had toned down his remarks at the request of march organizers after much backstage debate. As delivered, Lewis' speech began:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.
"The revolution is at hand," he said, "and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery." He rejected party affiliation:
The nation is still a place of political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises, and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles?" The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of [New York Republican Senator Jacob] Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?
For change to happen, "the people, the masses, must bring them about":
Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a "cooling-off" period.
We will not stop. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today . . . .
We must say, "Wake up, America. Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient."
James Farmer was to address the marchers, but he was in a Louisiana jail. His statement was read, assuring marchers that he had wanted to be with them, but could not bail his way out of jail while leaving behind 232 others "for their crime was the same as mine, demanding freedom now." He promised to continue the struggle:
We will not slow down, we will not stop our militant, peaceful demonstrations. We will not come off the streets until we can work at any job befitting our skills any place in the land . . . until our kids have enough to eat and their minds can study and range wide without being cramped in Jim Crow schools.
Until we can live wherever we choose and can eat and play with no closed doors blocking our way. We will not stop till the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.
As the speeches continued through the afternoon, the tightly packed crowd became restless in the sweltering heat, "many waiting almost for the speeches to end," as Gentile put it:
Many sought the shade of the huge trees lining the Reflecting Pool, but the trees could not cover all of the crowd. Some took dips in the shallow, murky Reflecting Pool. Everyone fanned himself or herself. [March, p. 234-235]
A speech by Whitney Young, Jr., Executive Director of the Urban League "had little visible impact" on the crowd, which did not interrupt it with applause.
He was followed by Matthew Ahmann, the white Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. According to Gentile, his words struck the crowd as "essentially empty," lacking "a militant call for action, the sense of urgency, the sense of 'Now' so vital to blacks in the summer of 1963."
Roy Wilkins of the NAACP followed with a speech that questioned the value of the President's bill:
The President's proposals represent so moderate an approach that if it is weakened, the remainder will be little more than sugarwater.
He also questioned the government's role in protecting those fighting for their civil rights:
It is simply incomprehensible . . . that the United States Government, which can regulate the contents of a pill, apparently is powerless to prevent the physical abuse of citizens within its own borders.
Following Wilkins, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson "brought the then listless crowd to life" by singing "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." [March, p. 237-239]
Only two speakers remained on the program. The first, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, compared Germany in the 1930s to the present, calling on citizens not to become "a nation of silent onlookers." His remarks lacked urgency for the hot, tired crowd.
Dr. King was the final speaker, beginning at about 3:40 after a long, enthusiastic greeting from the crowd. He had worked hard on his speech for several days, and march organizers knew it would probably exceed the 7 minutes allotted to all speakers, but they also knew they would not interrupt him.
He began by referring to President Lincoln, "a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today" and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation:
This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
The marchers, he said, "have come to our nation's capitol to cash a check." He explained:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check: a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. So we have come to cash this check - a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Dr. King drew shouts from the crowd as he emphasized "the fierce urgency of now" in contrast to "the luxury of cooling off" and "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He said:
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. 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 quality.
This was not a time to return to business as usual:
The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our Nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Don't yield to bitterness, he said. He urged people to "conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline" and "not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence" or "a distrust of all white people."
He answered those in Congress and newspaper opinion columns who wanted to know when the Negro would be satisfied:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs reading "for whites only." 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, now we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The text Dr. King had worked on began toward a conclusion by urging the marchers to go home "as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction," but he abandoned the pretentious line, and began to improvise:
Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can, and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
Branch explained what happened next:
Knowing that he had wandered completely off his text, some of those behind him on the platform urged him on, and Mahalia Jackson piped up as though in church, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Whether her words reached him is not known. Later, King said only that he forgot the rest of the speech and took up the first run of oratory that "came to me." After the word "despair," he temporized for an instant: "I say to you today, my friends, and so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . ." [Parting the Waters, p. 882]
What followed, though not part of the prepared text, would give the speech its name: the "I Have a Dream" speech. The dream he said, was that the Nation would live out the true meaning of the phrase that "all men are created equal," that the sons of slaves and the sons of former slaveowners "will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," and that even the State of Mississippi, a "desert state sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."
He dreamed that his four children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by their character and that the State of Alabama would see black boys and girls join hands with white boys and girls "and walk together as sisters and brothers."
He transitioned to the conclusion by calling for America to "let freedom ring" from all parts of the Nation:
When we let freedom ring, 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 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 that old Negro spiritual, "Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!" [Washington, James Melvin, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper One, 1991, p. 217-220]
Gentile summarized the crowd's reaction to the 19-minute speech:
To many of the rank and file marchers, Dr. King's speech, while the best of the lot, was not then the moving experience that it became later on in hindsight. Indeed, there was almost a collective sigh of relief that respite from the heat, standing, and crowd was forthcoming. But others remembered it as the most moving moment of their lives. [March, p. 249]
Mrs. Icelle Coleman, a Manhattan garment worker, told a reporter for The New York Times that the program had been excellent from start to finish but that Dr. King "stole the show." She added, "He said so much, it was just uplifting." Mrs. Doris Offley, a Manhattan nurse, agreed, adding, "Dr. King talked about racial harmony, and there it was for all to see." [Jones, Theodore, "Tired New Yorkers Head Home Full of Praise for Capital Rally," The New York Times, August 29, 1963]
As Dr. King turned from the podium, Randolph introduced Bayard Rustin, who read the demands of the march. "This is why we are here," Randolph said, so that when march leaders went to Congress, they could say the crowd approved the demands. After reading each demand, Rustin asked the crowd, "What do you say?" and the crowd cheered in support.
Finally, at 4:15, Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse College, gave the benediction, which concluded:
Guide, keep, sustain, and bless the United States and help the weary travelers to overcome someday soon.
After a mass singing of "We Shall Overcome," the crowd dispersed. The march ended at 4:20 p.m. [March, p. 241-251]
District employees had been sent home at 3:15 and, at the request of police, Federal employees were dismissed at 3:30. The result was a smooth departure for the marchers, as Loftus described in The New York Times :
By 2:30, hundreds of participants were leaving the scene of the ceremonies, long before they had ended. Shuttle buses carried them to the railroad station. Some of those who left early reported they could not get close enough to see the speakers and performers. They were tired and wanted a place to sit down.
Later in the afternoon as trains got away on schedule, the police reported that the station crowd was orderly and "in a jovial mood."
By 6:10 P.M., 50 per cent of the special buses had left the city. ["Delays are Few and Short-Lived," August 29, 1963]
Gentile summarized the departures:
Indeed traffic was so light in Washington that day that a Star reporter called it "a harried motorist's dream of heaven". By 7:00 p.m. nearly all of the buses and trains, and most of the private vehicles had left town. By dusk the city seemed strangely deserted. The visitors had mostly left, and the inhabitants were either out of town, or still afraid to come out of doors. At 9:00 p.m. the police considered things back to normal and extra police and national guardsmen were released from duty. [March, p. 252]
Not all of the departures went smoothly. The Times reported that three buses bound for Connecticut were pelted with stones near the entrance to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. One of the stones crashed through the windshield of one of the buses, but no one was injured. [Associated Press, "3 Rights Buses are Stoned," The New York Times, August 29, 1963]
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