March on Washington. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Next week, as no one will be allowed to forget, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. In a country in which ignoring history is just about the national pastime, somehow this event—what it was like, and what it accomplished—is remembered indelibly. But here is what we have forgotten: how the event was thought about before it happened. In a way, the contrast between how the March on Washington was envisioned by most Americans on August 27, and how it was recalled on August 29, was its greatest accomplishment of all—the reason it became one of history’s hinges.
As I wrote in my book Before the Storm, “It was hard for white America to see anything benign in a mass gathering of Negroes. The fears were primal, subliminal. ‘I don’t like to touch them. It just makes me squeamish,’ one Northerner told Newsweek. Another said, ‘It’s the idea of rubbing up against them. It won’t rub off, but it don’t feel right either.’ The magazine’s polling showed that 55 percent of whites would object to living next door to a black person—and 90 percent would object if their daughter married one.”
Yesterday I did a deeper dive into what happened when a country that thought like that, pictured thousands of angry black people massing in Washington, DC. The answer was: violent chaos.
The first news stories about, as the first Associated Press story put it, “Police intelligence reports that 100,000 Negroes might march on Capital Hill,” came on June 23. Some context: that May had begun the escalating confrontation between the forces of Martin Luther King Jr. and the forces of Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama. By Memorial Day, civil rights protests spread to half a dozen cities, including Columbus, Ohio, where two men chained themselves to the furniture in the capitol building. On June 11, registration day for new students at the University of Alabama, the state’s new governor George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa to make sure no blacks were among them. His supporters included the editorialists of the Winona (Kansas) Leader, who wrote, “The very people who have the greatest stake in preserving the Constitution”—black people—“are doing the most to destroy it” with their meddlesome protesting. The same night as George Wallace’s stand, one of those meddlesome protesters, NAACP voter registration coordinator Medgar Evers, returned home from a day’s work past midnight and was shot dead in his own driveway. That evening, President Kennedy had given a brave, bold speech announcing his support for a civil rights bill to outlaw segregation in public accommodations—“a moral issue…as old as the scriptures…as clear as the American Constitution.” On June 19, the president presented his legislation in a special message to Congress. It included this admonition: “There have been increasing public demonstrations of resentment directed against this kind of discrimination—demonstrations which too often breed tension and violence. Only the federal government, it is clear, can make these demonstrations unnecessary by providing peaceful remedies for the grievances which set them off.” He repeated the point at the end of the speech: “I want to caution against demonstrations which can lead to violence.”