Earlier this month, we put out a call for stories from readers who participated in the 1963 March on Washington or any of the anniversary marches. With some assistance spreading the word from the Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Movement Veterans, we received a number of compelling responses, most of which were from people who attended—or even helped organize—the iconic 1963 march. Below are highlights from our readers’ stories. We encourage you to add your own in our comment section.
I was just 17 when my mom was working with CORE and I was swept up into the goings-on. At the march I was amazed at all the people who were there and I felt safe. MLK was inspiring and Bayard Rustin was elevating us to commit to working to make the Dream a realization. MLK called on us to hold America accountable for the promissory note that is the Constitution. He urged us to go back to our communities and continue the work.
In the summer of 1963, I had just graduated from the University of Maryland and begun work for the federal government (former Civil Service Commission; now OPM) in Washington. A few friends and I decided to attend the march because we felt a strong commitment to civil rights. Rumors swirled that the Klan might cause trouble, but we were undeterred. It was a terribly hot, humid day. After the performances on the grounds of the Washington Monument, we began the march to the Lincoln Memorial. It was stirring to be part of such a massive, peaceful crowd. Many carried signs, and we then realized that so many had come so far to join the march. Many sang as we walked; it was an amazing moment. Once at the memorial, our little group made our way to stand in the shade under massive trees to the right of the memorial near the Reflecting Pool. But, in truth, we never heard the stirring speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The excitement of the day, together with the searing heat and enervating humidity, had finally taken their toll. By the time Dr. King began to speak, we were watching him on TV in an air-conditioned apartment.
Yes, I was there. I marched. Although it didn’t feel like a march, with its militaristic connotations. It felt like a gathering of souls with a common purpose, bound together in sorrow for the long history of slavery and injustice and for the recent tragic killings of Medgar Evers and the schoolgirls in Alabama. But we were also bound together in righteousness and hope for change that was palpable as we walked together, black and white, with raised placards, holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” I was with a group from CORE, New York City. We were in the back near the end of the pond and couldn’t see the speakers, but the voices of John Lewis and others, and then Martin Luther King Jr. spoke truth to power and to our hearts and minds. Imagine such a sea of people all listening in profound silence as they did. The silence itself and the words of those great souls over the loudspeaker will forever remain in Washington, DC, and the world as a reminder of our better angels and the true purpose of our democracy.
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“I might not even have gone…”
I might not even have gone to the March on Washington if it hadn’t been for a college boyfriend who came to town along with a friend of his. I’d already signed up to help out at one of the churches that were hosting busloads of people coming to participate, but I was uncertain about participating myself. One reason was the incessant talk of possible violence that had prompted federal officials to give employees the day off. Also, I wasn’t sure whether white people (like the three of us) would be welcome. The White House seemed ambivalent about the event, providing no public support.
But the two guys brushed off my concerns. And so the night before the march found us walking through the nearly deserted streets of downtown Washington, trying to gauge the city’s mood. On one corner, some black teenagers were singing a jazzed-up version of “We Shall Overcome”—effectively the anthem of the civil rights movement—that struck me (in my humorless, white-girl way) as bordering on the sacrilegious. At the Lincoln Memorial, small knots of people stood murmuring on the steps where tomorrow, we knew, all the big names of the movement would be gathered. As I looked out into the darkness, the statue of Lincoln bathed in light behind me, I felt something akin to how soldiers must feel on the night before battle, when everything is quiet but not peaceful.
The day of the march was in fact less memorable than that evening. When I arrived at dawn at the church I’d been assigned to, I found so many volunteers, and such eagerness on the part of the people getting off the buses to move straight to the staging area, that I couldn’t find anything to do and soon went home.
By the time my friends and I got to the march route, the leaders had already passed by. But the river of people, almost all of them black, seemed endless. For some time we stood, hesitating, on the sidewalk. Finally my boyfriend’s friend picked up a discarded poster and said “C’mon” and we all stepped out and became part of the river ourselves. At one point a woman started a call-and-response song and everyone in our sector joined in, but eventually, hot and tired, the crowd let it die and shuffled along in silence. The three of us didn’t get anywhere near the stage at the Lincoln Memorial, and instead, after standing for some time in the broiling sun, we found a shady spot from which we could hear, but not see, the music and speeches.
I’d like to say that the whole place fell silent when Martin Luther King began to speak, but I don’t remember it that way; instead, my memory is of people continuing to move around, with some packing up and leaving and some fanning themselves in an effort to stay cool. I do remember Dr. King’s famous lines—or at least I think I do—but I’d be lying if I said that I knew instantly that this speech would go down in history.
In 1963, I was a march volunteer in New York City. One of the jobs I had was contacting the bus companies to rent buses for NYC Metropolitan area churches, labor unions, and organizations. I remember talking with a woman at DeCamp Bus Corp., which was a major New Jersey commuter bus company. I told her I needed buses for August 28. She asked “How many?” I said, “How many do you have?” She said something like “120.” And I said, “all of them.” There was stunned silence on the other end of the line.
On the day of the march, I went down on the earliest train and met with the Washington police to coordinate bus transit and parking through to the march site. Hours later, I was on the podium for a while, and remember a discussion with Bayard [Rustin] and Sy Posner, the march’s press guy, about whether or not A. Philip Randolph should announce the police estimate of 200,000. I (and others) thought it was significantly higher than that, counting the number of buses and trains, and really not having any handle on the number of local Washingtonians who simply walked or took public transit to the Lincoln Memorial.
By late afternoon, my part in the March was over, and I walked back down the Reflecting Pool to enjoy seeing the huge crowds. It was a satisfying moment. When Dr. King began to speak, most of the people were relaxed (some even half asleep). It must have been 98 degrees under the hot sun. Then he suddenly changed his voice quality as he said, “I have a dream today!” As he went on into the famous passages of his address, there was this electric sensation running through the crowd. It was the most awe-inspiring sensation I have ever felt.
At the time, Dr. King was thought of as one of the leaders of the movement, not “the” leader. Those of us who had volunteered for Bayard Rustin since 1957–58 thought of Bayard and Phil Randolph as the real organizers, King more as a spokesman. But from the moment he spoke his dream, it was clear that Martin Luther King Jr. was the face of the civil rights movement.
Bayard assigned me to organize the security communications system—walkie-talkies, base stations, codes, etc.—with William Johnson, head of the Guardian Association of black NYC policemen, 1,000 of whose members would serve as marshals. Came the day, the system fell apart, unable to handle the complexities of 300,000 people in one place. I ended up running from one security station to another asking, “is everything OK?” Everything was.
With no racists to defend ourselves against and no riotous drunken white-hating murderous Negroes to restrain (as the government and media predicted), I found myself stage right leaning against the Lincoln Memorial wall fifty feet from the podium. I cried when Mahalia Jackson sang “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned.” From my perch I could imagine “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Inaccurately.
Remembering Bayard Rustin
This is the story of one direct outcome of the 1963 March on Washington, to which I went as a member of the Huntington Township Committee on Human Relations in Suffolk County, Long Island.
Shortly after the Washington March our Huntington Human Relations Committee decided to have our own March on Huntington Town Hall to bring a petition asking for the passage of an Open Housing Ordinance for the township. At the time this was a huge issue, as even middle-class black people had a very hard time finding housing because of racial discrimination.
Our local march later that year began with a rally at the Huntington RR station. Our main speaker was Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the Washington march, and a friend of the co-chair of our committee.
Only about 300 people were at the rally, and many of us were disappointed. But Rustin, who was a dynamic speaker in the way that King was, assured us that we should not be upset. He said that the important thing is to “go with what you got, and build from there.” I can hear his voice now.
After the rally, we started walking up Huntington’s Main Street. It was about two miles to the Town Hall. As we walked along, other people—white as well as black—started to join us. By the time we got to the Town Hall to present the petition, there was a crowd estimated by the police at 2,000 people. Man, was Rustin right.
The upshot was that within a year, the Huntington Town Council did pass an Open Housing ordinance. It is not likely this all would have happened had it not been for the inspiration of King and the Washington march.
And, yes, I will be at the 2013 March.
“I had an overwhelming sense of the dangers that they must face…”
There was great excitement at the Harlem Education Project about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On the day of the March we and a large group of assorted activists from Harlem loaded on a bus in the wee hours of the morning. We had a few seats left and the driver said that he was to drive to the Lower East Side and pick up a few more folks from an organization none of us had heard of—Students for a Democratic Society.
Coming into Washington was surreal. This was my hometown. Evidently all the government workers had been told to stay home. As we entered the city there was a line of buses as far as the eye could see in front and in back of us. As we drove down normally very crowded New York Avenue, we never stopped. The bus parked out on Hains Point and we took the long walk back to the Mall.
The sea of humanity that was gathering on the Mall was overwhelming. On the north side of the main body there was a corridor and some groups marched in together with identifying banners. When a group from Mississippi marched in, I started crying. I had an overwhelming sense of the dangers that they must face each day and the courage it took to stay the course under such conditions. I wasn’t the only person crying.
This August, having spent forty-eight years as a civil rights lawyer, I will be marching virtually.
“We don’t want your kind here.”
I worked with student supporters of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in the office on Fifth Avenue in NYC. Several times I went up to 135th St. March on Washington HQ in Harlem to help with mailing and met Mr. Rustin, the main organizer. My aunt, Trudy Orris, helped organize a bus going down to DC and I was on that bus. Getting off in DC, I was almost pushed by the crowd of thousands down Constitution Avenue towards the Lincoln Memorial, hearing the music of Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers along the way. I listened to the speeches and especially to John Lewis (speaking for us young SNCC workers). When Dr. King spoke, I knew that his words would be remembered for their power and eloquence.
Heading back home the New York, our bus stopped at a Maryland gas station and someone came out with a gun saying, “We don’t want your kind here.”
Looking back, the thought that we would have a black president so soon was beyond belief. When I retired, I thought that I would be talking about my experience in the civil rights and antiwar movements as history to the young folks of today. I did not expect to have to still be actively involved in a new movement around these same issues. The voter suppression (and other regressive) laws passed here in North Carolina have impelled me and many others in the ’60s generation to come out and actively support the Moral Monday movement. While I knew that the struggle would have to be continuous, the current level of reaction surprised me.
I was 18 and had just graduated from high school when I went to Washington, DC, with a friend, Gaines T. Bradford, an older man, and a social worker who was helping my family out during a tough time. Brad, who is dead now, was black. I am white. We rode a bus from Pittsburgh to the historic gathering.
In Washington, Brad and I tried to take lunch in a local DC restaurant before the speeches commenced. Some white men in the restaurant, maybe ten in all, who identified us as out-of-towners for the big event, ordered us out of the restaurant, claiming that they didn’t want any trouble from “agitators.” They also insulted Brad, repeatedly using the “N” word.
Foolishly, I wanted to fight them. But Brad wisely left the restaurant, taking me with him. But the shame of what had transpired hurt Brad. “They wouldn’t pull this crap on us if we were back on the North Side,” Brad said. “Some boys there would fix them up quick.” In those days, a part of Pittsburgh’s North Side was a tough ghetto inhabited primarily by African-Americans.
Later, we made our way over to the mall and listened to the speeches. This was pretty tough to do because we were way in the back and the acoustics were terrible. Sadly, I don’t remember Dr. King’s great “I have a dream” speech. Maybe we could not hear it.
Missing the March, but Remembering the Day
In the summer of 1963 I was a high school student in Los Angeles, California, just getting ready to start my senior year. I watched the march on television, as there is no way my parents would have allowed me to go across country by myself. I always wished I had been able to stand in that sea of humanity and be a part of one of the central events of my time. But in a way I was there, as the words spoken have influenced my entire life. Now, fifty years later I don’t have to have permission. I am going to stand in the crowd, however large it may be, and then go to visit the memorial to Dr. King. I am sure at some point I will close my eyes and imagine myself being there fifty years ago.
I wanted to go to the March on Washington with a friend’s church that had organized buses. Alas, I worked after school and on weekends and simply could not get permission to leave. On the day of the March, on non-work hours, I was glued to the television and cheering on the marchers and speakers, crying with emotion believing that this would change the world. My life had been impacted by those who had done so much before that and those who on that day showed that this mattered.
Since then I have worked and spoken to spread the word of equality and civil and human rights. It is one of the things that keeps me going—we are not “post-racial” and there continues to be hate and discrimination against many. I will try, on my electric scooter, to be part of the marches this August. It matters as much now as it did then.
On a sweltering August day in 1963, I listened to Dr. King speak his dream, articulating the highest aspirations of our Freedom Movement. My heart soared, and to this day I am still moved by those words no matter how often I hear them. But now, fifty years later as the media tributes and commemorations flood the airwaves I am struck by their thundering silence on the issues of economic justice, poverty, and income inequality that were half of the march’s bedrock core.
Voter suppression laws have the potential to prevent millions of mostly voters of color and low-income voters from voting. Stand Your Ground laws encourage the use of guns, making it much harder—as the Trayvon Martin case demonstrates—to prosecute murderers. Anti-abortion laws are making access virtually unavailable in many states, particularly for poor, young and rural women. We are restricting the rights of workers to unionize and imposing limitations on collective bargaining for public employees. Racism never went away and has gone out of control.
I am marching for jobs, justice and freedom for all Americans, not just a few. I’m marching for the future of my grandchildren. I refuse to sit home and watch the destruction of the nation and our people. The sad fact is that the basic demand of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom remains unfulfilled. The only path to victory is to organize, protest and vote.