‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (2023)

“If that had been us that attacked the Capitol a couple of years ago, they would have shot us,” says Ted Dean, 85, from Flomaton, Alabama. “Think about it. They would have shot us.”

Dean is contrasting the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place peacefully 60 years ago on Monday, with the deadly insurrection by a mob of Donald Trump supporters at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

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The march, he recalls, was a diverse mix of Black and white, young and old. “It was wall to wall people. You name it: they were there. No fears about that and everybody got along beautiful. I wanted to be a part of it because it was in my DNA.”

Dean has attended every march on Washington since the first but acknowledges that the one planned for this Saturday, with civil rights leader Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III among the speakers, might be his last.

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (1)

The original March on Washington took place on 28 August 1963, a hundred years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the freedom of enslaved people in southern states. It was the biggest demonstration that Washington had ever seen.

Two key figures behind it were A Philip Randolph, who had been considering something like it since the 1940s and served as its director, and Bayard Rustin, a gay pacifist, civil rights activist and mastermind of non-violent protests who spent months planning every detail. A biopic of Rustin is due to be released in November.

(Video) Leaders of March on Washington 60th anniversary seek 'a continuation' of original movement

Eleanor Holmes Norton was a member of staff at the march’s national headquarters in the Harlem neighborhood of New York and made sure demonstrators got on buses and trains to Washington.

The 86-year-old says by phone: “I was the last person in that Harlem brownstone from which the march was organised and therefore I didn’t have to come by bus or train. I came by plane and could see, as the plane flew into Washington, that the march was going to be a success, no matter how doubtful we were about whether that would happen. I felt relief that the march was going to be a success.”

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (2)
‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (3)

On a near cloudless day with a temperature above 80F (26.6C), a crowd of a quarter of million people gathered on the National Mall to demand social justice, fair wages, economic opportunities and an end to racial segregation. In the dog days of August in the humid, sleepy capital, it was a wake-up call heard around the world.

Holmes Norton, who now represents the District of Columbia in the US Congress, continues: “A march this big had never been held so we didn’t know what to expect. While we had our doubts, it turned out that there were 250,000 people who came to the march that gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“The police came but there were no disruptions whatsoever. There was a very peaceful and joyful mood at the march. What was so compelling was how the diverse the march was: Black, white, people of all ages. It looks as though people heeded the call for the March for Peace and Freedom. It could not be ignored in Congress, not with that many people coming to Washington.”

Women had played a critical role in organising the march despite being mostly excluded from the official programme. Only one woman spoke at the Lincoln Memorial: Daisy Bates, NAACP chapter president and an advisor to the Little Rock Nine. The activist and entertainer Lena Horne yelled a single word into the microphone: “Freedom!” But the crowd did not get to hear from Dorothy Height, a key organiser known as “the godmother of the civil rights movement”.

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (4)

Holmes Norton says this reflected sexism in the civil rights movement at that time. “There was no reason for her not to speak. She represented a huge number of people, women as it turns out, and was a member of the Big Six but everybody else was allowed to speak except her. That was perhaps the only flaw in the march.”

(Video) Marking 60 years since the March on Washington

Until his death in 2020, Congressman John Lewis was the last living speaker at the march – and the most militant. The then 23-year-old had planned to say: “We will march through the south, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” and demand “Which side is the federal government on?” but toned down his speech at the last minute under pressure from King and other organisers.

Holmes Norton says: “There was a real debate over John Lewis’s remarks. They were more radical than the remarks of others and everybody wanted the march to be kept at a level that everybody could back. John Lewis altered his remarks a little bit after there was this uproar about some of what he was going to say.”

Is she glad he did? “Yeah because we didn’t want any disagreement among the so-called Big Six, the people who organised the march.”

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (5)

King, by contrast, had prepared a somewhat formal and restrained address. He was about to sit down when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted: “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” King then drew upon some of his past speeches, including the refrain “I have a dream” and improvising other lines urging Americans to picture a world without racism.

Holmes Norton describes “I have a dream” as the “unforgettable” line from the march. “There were a number of memorable speeches but, true to form, the speech that stood out was Martin Luther King Jr speech.

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (6)

“I don’t remember the words now but I think it was the only speech that people could remember because of his extraordinary eloquence. There was nobody like him. Remember he was a Baptist minister so he’d had a lot of practice not only in writing it but in delivering it.”

King’s 16-minute address, currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture and History to mark the anniversary, helped cement the march’s political legacy. It is widely credited with pressuring the John F Kennedy administration to act on civil rights, ultimately leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But when Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general Robert Kennedy, first got wind of plans for the march they had been anxious. The pair eventually decided that it was more pragmatic to work with the organisers than against them.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of Robert Kennedy, recently told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute thinktank in Washington: “When they learned that Martin Luther King wanted to do the March on Washington, they had a choice: to fight it or to say, let’s work together. The decision was by John Kennedy and my father: let’s work together.”

Robert Kennedy put together a group at the justice department to work on it, she recalled. “They met every morning and every afternoon to figure out how they can help make sure that the March on Washington went well. They must have worked very closely with Bayard Rustin.

“They worked on making sure the speaker system was working well. Then they got Jerry Bruno, who was the best advance person in the Kennedy campaign, to work on it. They brought Black police officers from New York because there were no Black police officers in Washington DC. They made sure there was no liquor so that there could be no glass.

Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, continued: “At one point they were afraid that there weren’t going to be enough people. John Kennedy brought in labour leaders to make sure that there were a lot of white people involved in the march because they wanted to make sure that it was an integrated march.

“There were a number of things that they really wanted to do. They wanted a large march. They wanted it to be integrated. They looked at some of the speeches to make sure that it wasn’t too radical and that upset a number of Blacks.

Malcolm X was very angry at what he saw was a co-option of the march. He didn’t like the idea that Blacks and whites were playing in the reflecting pond together. But John Kennedy wanted to get the civil rights bill passed and he thought the more that it looked like people were for it and there was a large crowd of Blacks and whites for the civil rights bill, the greater the opportunity of getting it passed.

“It was very important for the White House, President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, to get as many people to that march as possible, to make it work as well as possible, to make it as peaceful as possible.”

Everyone who was at the march has their own memories of that day. Frank Stewart, a photographer, was 14. He brought to the march by his mother, who had a Kodak Brownie camera. He asked to use it and took pictures then got the roll of film developed by a pharmacy. He now describes it as his first foray into photography.

Sitting at the Phillips Collection in Washington, where the photos are currently on display, he explains: “It was the first time I saw Black and white people together walking to do something. You’d never see that when I was growing up. Growing up in Memphis, they had laws that weren’t on the books but they were called Black codes like reckless eyeballing: you couldn’t look at white people in the eye.

“You couldn’t talk to white people when they were coming down the street. You had to get off the sidewalk for them. You had to sit in the back of the bus and they had a little sign that you would move: Black folks couldn’t move the sign but white folks could move the sign. This was the first time I’d seen all these white people with Black people marching for a common cause. That was a revelation.”

(Video) Still Marching: Marking 60 years of the March on Washington

‘I witnessed the best of America’: remembering the March on Washington 60 years on (7)

For others, it was the journey as much as the destination. Mera Rubell, a leading art collector and cofounder of the Rubell Museums, was a 19-year-old student at Brooklyn College in New York at the time of the march. The college organised a bus to Washington with the singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who played guitar as students sang the whole way.

Speaking from Miami, Florida, the 79-year-old says: “It was extraordinary, like you were pulled into a zone where you felt like you were making a difference in America. There were young kids that were going on the freedom marches; all that was in the news.

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“Being on that bus and being with him and singing those beautiful songs about human equality, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t politically involved; I was busy with my studies. When I heard that Harry Belafonte was going to Washington to hear Martin Luther King, I didn’t know that it was a big historic moment. You never know that it’s going to be a historic moment, if the truth be told.”

When Rubell returned to the National Mall for Barack Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009, she got flashbacks. “I kept thinking, oh my God, yes, this is what it was like: old, young, on crutches, in wheelchairs, people feeling like they simply had to be there. This is not highly political people; this is across the board people. I superimposed my experience of the inauguration of Obama with the March on Washington.”

Looking back to that sun drenched August day in 1963, she adds: “What I experienced was something very peaceful. I guess we witnessed the essence of democracy. I don’t remember people carrying American flags, for example; it was very friendly, very joyous. There was a kind of camaraderie and feeling like America was stepping up to something important.

“I felt like I witnessed the best of America. Whenever I go to the Mall now, I think to myself, OK, so this is what the the Mall of the United States is for – the public coming and expressing peacefully their passions.”

Additional photos of pins and pennants: Getty Images

(Video) “I Have a Dream” and Unsung Heroes of the March on Washington, 60 Years Later | Amanpour and Company


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