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“A New Beginning”
Martin Luther King made history 50 years ago, but a lot more went into the March on Washington—from the drama behind an activist’s speech to the 200,000 who came to make their voices heard. By William P. Jones
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.
Comments () | Published August 12, 2013

An eerie silence greeted journalist Russell Baker when he arrived in downtown DC on Wednesday morning, August 28, 1963.

“At 8 am, when rush-hour traffic is normally creeping bumper-to-bumper across the Virginia bridges and down the main boulevards from Maryland, the streets had the abandoned look of Sunday morning,” Baker reported in his New York Times column.

Authorities estimated that most of the 160,000 federal and city employees who worked nearby stayed home, while nearly half of businesses were closed. Twice the typical number of hotel rooms were vacant. “For the natives,” Baker wrote, “this was obviously a day of siege and the streets were being left to the marchers.”

From the start of the mobilization for the day’s event—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—the march’s national office took every precaution to ensure that participants complied with the principles of nonviolent protest. It sent manuals to local organizing committees explaining the goals for the march and instructing them on the process for bringing supporters to Washington.

Marchers were discouraged from traveling in private cars, and every chartered vehicle was required to have a captain to keep track of passengers, explain procedures, and take responsibility “for the welfare and discipline of their group.” Local organizers were required to report the name, address, and phone number of every marcher along with the number of vehicles departing from their city. The organizing committee in Chicago asked train captains to comfort “demonstrators who appear lonely,” and it recruited banjo players, guitarists, and a three-piece jazz combo to “combat boredom” during the 18-hour ride to Washington.

The National Council of Churches organized volunteers to prepare 80,000 box lunches and pack them into refrigerated trucks for sale in Washington. The garment and auto workers’ unions donated $20,000 for a sound system so marchers could hear the proceedings from the Washington Monument grounds—nearly a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, where the speeches would take place. “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear,” march organizer Bayard Rustin said, explaining that “a classic resolution” to the problem of controlling a crowd was to “transform it into an audience.”

• • •

“I feel good because the Negroes are on the march and nothing is going to stop us!” yelled organizer George Johnson as he signaled the departure of 24 buses that the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had arranged to carry nearly 1,000 passengers from New York City. Journalist Marlene Nadle recorded the scene in Harlem as marchers boarded at 2 in the morning. Nadle climbed aboard with ten other CORE members, including James Peck, a white activist who had been beaten in Birmingham, Alabama, and unemployed workers whose transportation had been sponsored by CORE.

Police estimated that 1,500 chartered buses carried marchers to the capital, in addition to scheduled routes. Organizers in New York City and Philadelphia reported that 400 buses came from each of those cities, carrying a total of nearly 60,000 marchers. Eleven came from North Carolina, ten from Boston, six from Alabama, four each from St. Louis and Atlanta, three each from Kansas City, Cleveland, Houston, and Jackson, Mississippi, and two each from New Orleans and Tulsa. One bus drove all the way from San Francisco.

Just after 8 am, the first of 32 chartered “Freedom Trains” arrived at Union Station, each carrying 1,000 people. Fourteen trains arrived from New York City. Another moved up the southern seaboard, starting in Tallahassee and making stops in Georgia and South Carolina. Two trains came from New Orleans, one from Detroit, and two from Chicago. Time magazine reported that the new arrivals looked “weary, bewildered and subdued” until their spirits were lifted by the Florida contingent, which “piled off the train singing the battle hymn of the Negroes’ 1963 revolution, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ”

Delegations walked from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and as far away as Alabama. One man came on roller skates from Chicago; another rode a bicycle from Los Angeles. Hundreds traveled by airplane. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Eleanor Holmes—later DC congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton—took the first flight out of LaGuardia after spending the night answering phones at march headquarters in Harlem.

Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando arrived at National Airport with a delegation of 30 show-business people from Los Angeles, while Charlton Heston and Sidney Poitier flew with a group from New York. Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and Burt Lancaster came in from Paris.

Some marchers headed for the Capitol to seek a meeting with their representatives, and a small group went to picket Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department. But for the most part they were content to leave the formal lobbying to labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and other representatives of the Big Ten civil-rights organizations.

The official leaders received a cold reception. South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who had vowed to lead a filibuster against President Kennedy’s civil-rights bill, dismissed the demonstration as “unnecessary and uncalled for,” claiming that civil-rights leaders had exaggerated the extent of discrimination in the US and “distorted in the eyes of the whole world the view of freedom as it actually exists in America.”

Minnesota Democratic senator Hubert Humphrey, an enthusiastic supporter of the march, agreed that it “probably hasn’t changed any votes on the civil-rights bill,” although he insisted it was “a good thing for Washington and the nation and the world.”

Most lawmakers simply ignored the delegation. Only a few accepted the march leaders’ invitation to be introduced during the program at the Lincoln Memorial.

• • •

By 9:30 am, 40,000 people had gathered at the Washington Monument. Although a “fair grounds atmosphere prevailed,” Russell Baker of the Times noted that several Southern delegations displayed “an uncharacteristic note of bitterness.” Seventy-five activists from SNCC huddled together wearing black armbands and, Baker wrote, singing “of the freedom fight in a sad melody.” A 15-year-old boy explained that they were “mourning injustice in Danville [Virginia],” where a few weeks earlier police had attacked nonviolent demonstrators with clubs and fire hoses.

The resentment displayed by young Southerners reflected a broader undercurrent of frustration among the marchers, from every region of the country, with the refusal of so many white Americans to support even modest steps toward racial equality. “I have no faith in the white man,” the previously optimistic George Johnson said soon after the CORE caravan left New York, expressing skepticism that the march would result in passage of Kennedy’s civil-rights bill. Johnson supported CORE’s use of nonviolent civil disobedience but admitted, “As far as I’m concerned, anything done to get our rights is okay.”

Conrad Lynn—who had grown critical of the civil-rights movement since defending an NAACP chapter president from North Carolina who in 1959 advocated that black Southerners “meet violence with violence”—handed out pamphlets calling for an all-black Freedom Now Party. “If our revolt means anything,” a party activist declared, “it is our rejection and repudiation of the white liberals whom we have permitted for too long to dictate what we ask for, when, where, and how.”

The most cynical assessment came from activist Malcolm X, who later told a reporter that he traveled to Washington but ended up watching the protest on TV in a hotel room.

Adapted from "The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights," copyright © 2013 by William P. Jones. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Writing in Ebony magazine after the march, author Lerone Bennett Jr. chided journalists who “went away and wrote long articles on ‘the remarkable sweetness’ of the crowd, proving once again that they still do not understand Negroes or themselves.” What such reports overlooked, Bennett said, was the “wonderful two-tongued ambivalence” that characterized the crowd. “Many moods competed, but two dominated: a mood of quiet anger and buoyant exuberance. There was also a feeling of power and a certain surprise as though the people had discovered suddenly what they were and what they had.”

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