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We Were There: Memories of the March on Washington

27 minute read
Interviews by Kate Pickert


Singer and activist

At the end of the Second World War, those of us who had participated in that conflict were under the impression that if we were triumphant over fascism and the Nazis, the men and women who returned from that conflict would be celebrated and honored by our nation. Many of us went off to that war and didn’t have the right to vote. Many of us went off to that war and didn’t have the right to participate in the American Dream. We didn’t really think about this thing as a dream until Dr. King articulated it.


Freedom Rider

We did not see this as simply a civil rights issue. It was a human rights issue. We were then beginning to connect our struggle with the struggles of people all over the world and especially the struggles in Africa, and it took some people a little bit aback that we would say we are fighting for our freedom. Because as far as most Americans were concerned–most white Americans–how can you connect segregation here with the totalitarianism and the dictatorships of Europe? To me it was the same thing. And we were saying to the world, This land of great opportunity, this land of liberty has an asterisk beside it. It is a land of freedom for everybody else except black people. This great March on Washington was our way of calling attention to it.

BELAFONTE: As a kid, there was not much I could aspire to, because the achievement of black people in spaces of power and rule and governance was not that evident, and therefore we were diminished in the way we thought we could access power and be part of the American fabric. We who came back from this war having expectations and finding that there were none to be harvested were put upon to make a decision. We could accept the status quo as it was beginning to reveal itself with these oppressive laws still in place. Or, as had begun to appear on the horizon, stimulated by something Mahatma Gandhi of India had done, we could start this quest for social change by confronting the state a little differently. Let’s do it nonviolently, let’s use passive thinking applied to aggressive ideas, and perhaps we could overthrow the oppression by making it morally unacceptable.


March on Washington transportation director

A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the dean of civil rights leaders, had initially called for a march in 1941. He postponed that march because Franklin Roosevelt gave him partially what he wanted in an Executive Order. Randolph never stopped dreaming and knowing that he had to have one.


Field secretary, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The feeling was that after 1961 and ’62–those really tremendous years of a lot of action, starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the lunch-counter sit-ins, followed the next spring by the Freedom Rides–it was really kicking the movement into a new gear beyond the more passive but tremendously courageous boycott of the buses in Montgomery. It was a new phase of the movement. And there was a feeling that we would not be able to break Mississippi. We would not be able to break the Deep South. That March on Washington in ’63 was to be the culmination of all of this intense organizing and bring the country to a realization that it has to not be a regional battle. It has to not be a young people’s battle. It really has to be a moral crusade for the country.

HOROWITZ: Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist who had played an instrumental role in developing the whole concept of nonviolence as protest action. He himself had been arrested about 20 times. He believed very deeply in something that A. Philip Randolph also believed in, and that is that the struggle for freedom in the United States had to eventually move to Washington, D.C., that it had to move to the center of power, to where the President and the Congress were–that no matter how many demonstrations took place in Montgomery and in Birmingham and places all around the South, until you could change the central government and have it legislate for all of the country, significant things wouldn’t happen.

Randolph’s contribution to the civil rights movement was a belief in mass action. Bayard added an organizer’s ability, a concept of the strategy of mass action and also of nonviolence. He had a mind that went to every aspect of organization. No aspect of organizing was too small, and nothing was too large. He would worry about the kinds of sandwiches that would be there, the nature of the sound system, how one dealt with the President of the United States.


Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1963–66; U.S. Representative from Georgia

I remember so well the first meeting that we had with President Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House. We told him we were going to have a march on Washington, and you could tell by the body language of the President, he didn’t like the idea of a march on Washington. He said, in effect, If you bring all these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder?

BELAFONTE: The conversation that I had with the White House and with the Justice Department was to say, Look, you know, this will not erupt into violence regardless of what J. Edgar Hoover and others say they see in our mix. We have a very solid group of citizens here. And part of that image was that the most trusted of our citizens, the most highly profiled, the most revered as celebrity will be there. So you’ll have Burt Lancaster, and you’ll have Paul Newman, and you’ll have Marlon Brando and people like James Baldwin and other writers, and Lena Horne.

HOROWITZ: At the beginning of the march, when it was in its planning stage, Bayard started to get a series of letters from people who were friends of civil rights–Senators. The letters all had the same theme. They went, “Dear Bayard, We really think that passage of the civil rights bill is the most important thing. We have supported the struggle for freedom. But have you considered the difficulties of having a march on Washington? Will there be enough toilets for the people there? Will there be enough water fountains?” Bayard eventually called them latrine letters. And while we laughed about them, he took them seriously. So we rented toilets, and we rented fountains so that people could drink water.


Volunteer, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Our committee met every week, and we said, O.K., what do we need to move this really large group of people from all over, to bring them in? We needed public relations. We needed to have a medical corps of nurses and doctors on hand. We needed to have porta potties, arrange transportation. Once we had charter buses, regular buses coming in–what’s going to happen to those? Where are people going to park?

HOROWITZ: It was a massive amount of phone calling, getting cards ready to be mailed, negotiations with various bus companies. Then we turned to trains and airplanes. Eventually we tried to charter everything that was charterable. We tried very much to help those people who were coming long distances to get trains for them. We actually had to raise a lot of money for that, because it was expensive and it was a Wednesday. It meant people had to take a day off from work. So we did a lot of fundraising. And we had what we called Freedom Trains from the South, which involved some negotiations with the Southern Railway.


March on Washington volunteer

I just turned 15 at the time, and there were a lot of things that were going on, of course, in the South, with demonstrations and the marches and picketing. But there was this great march they kept talking about that was going to happen in D.C., and myself and two other guys, we were sitting there talking about it, and we wanted to go. But of course we didn’t have the money to catch the bus. So one of the guys said, Well, let’s hitchhike. I looked at the other guy, and I said, Oh, yeah, that’s great, let’s do that–because we thought he was just talking, and the more we talked, we realized he was serious.

BELAFONTE: We had Broadway shutting down, and we had large delegations of artists and celebrities coming from New York and from Boston and other places. It was not just in the world of cinema and theater. We had a lot of musical artists and record artists.

HOROWITZ: It is also a mark of Bayard’s commitment to nonviolence and his organizing ability that at some point he realized that New York City policemen were required to carry their guns 24 hours a day. He said, Nobody is bringing a gun to this march. And he went to see Mayor Wagner or whoever the police authority was, and for that one day, New York City policemen were allowed to leave their guns home. The Justice Department also offered him the Army, the police, anything he wanted. And he said, No, if you want to do anything here, keep your troops on the periphery of the crowd and keep them watching for counterdemonstrators. We will monitor ourselves. You worry about provocateurs, racists, Klan members.


Co-founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The city of Washington almost went crazy. They canceled all elective surgery. They put surgeons and doctors on full time, waiting for something bad to happen. They put policemen on 18-hour shifts. They just went out of the way to prepare for what they thought would be some kind of massive riot. They couldn’t imagine this many black people coming together without some awful, awful disturbance in the streets.

HOROWITZ: Somebody at the National Council or the Red Cross said that the sandwiches had to be peanut butter and jelly. And Bayard came back to a staff meeting, and he said, O.K., we’re writing this manual, and we have to tell people to bring peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, no mayonnaise. Somebody said, But Bayard–And he said, This is not debatable! It became this sine qua non. Clearly what everybody was worried about was that you didn’t want egg salad and mayonnaise spoiling on the road and people getting sick.

AVERY: We were there a week ahead of time, so they put us to work. Our job was to put together those signs. All of those signs that you see in the film clips–it was our job to staple them and put them together, then take them over to the parade grounds and unload them. I would imagine I probably touched every last one of those signs in some fashion or form. We probably put together, I don’t know, 10,000 or more before we got to the parade ground. And of course, that morning people started coming in, and those signs were gone in a few minutes, and we had to get to work again putting more signs together.

BELAFONTE: In my instruction to my fellow artists when we met several times discussing strategy for what to do, I said, The more we can find ourselves in the heart of the people gathered at the event, the more we are seen and identified with the everyday citizen, the more we are all linking arms together, not just celebrity to celebrity but a truck driver, a dentist or a housewife, and we’re all linking arms together, the more powerful that imagery becomes. My task was to make sure that we salt-and-peppered the afternoon into the early evening to look that way.

THOMAS: We were there to guide people, tell them where to go, what were the gathering points for the march, because obviously the vast majority of people had never been in D.C. before. So we had to direct them. A very large percentage of them came by bus, but there were other people who drove their automobiles. It was a question of showing them where to go in, how to get to the reflecting pool, into the Lincoln Memorial and to be of assistance to them in case we’d have any medical emergencies. That was primarily my job and the job of the marshals. We all owned distinctive armbands so people knew who we were.

I think it was about 7 o’clock that morning when we took our stations, and we didn’t see anybody, and then within the next hour, people started pouring in, and it was just a wonderful sight.

AVERY: I don’t really think they expected that many people. The word around the office was, when we were putting the signs together, If you get 35,000 or so, you’re going to be O.K.

LEWIS: We came across Constitution Avenue, coming from the Senate side going down to the bottom of the hill, and we looked toward Union Station. There was a sea of humanity coming from Union Station, and the people were already marching, and it was like saying, There go my people. Let me catch up with them.

HOROWITZ: The chairmen were up on Capitol Hill meeting with the leaders of the House and Senate, and people at the Washington Monument had decided they were ready to go to the Lincoln Memorial. They formed lines, and they began to march, singing, and an orderly march began spontaneously to the Lincoln Memorial so that by the time the march chairmen came, somebody had to stop the march, and they had to be put in front of what was really not the front of the line, just so they could lead it.


March on Washington attendee; Georgia state senator

It was an incredible experience being in a gathering of that size. It just felt like we were part of a glacier moving down the avenue.

AVERY: I became a participant like everybody else once the march started. Hey, if you need a sign, you’ve got to go put your own sign together–we’re gone.

LEWIS: You saw signs from all over America: political signs, religious signs. People representing different faiths. Churches from the heart of the Midwest, the far West. People coming from all over the country to bear witness, to participate. Many of the people were well dressed. It was like going to church or temple or synagogue. People then, when they went out for a protest, they dressed up.

BOND: The interracial nature of the crowd is remarkable. You look at these pictures, and you see this is not a black crowd. This is black and white people. This is Americans saying, I don’t like segregation. I want it to stop.


Widow of Jackie Robinson; founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation

The spirit in the whole setting was so exciting, so positive, so hopeful that something was going to happen. We felt very enthusiastic about everything. We were happy to wait and find a seat, and delighted when we found a seat up front so we could see the procedure and we could hear the speeches. It turned out to be an extraordinary experience for all of us–for the children and for Jack and I–because we had never worked on anything of that magnitude or seen that kind of support for equal opportunities, which is what we had been hoping for for many years.

LEWIS: I was 23 years old at the time. I remember A. Philip Randolph introduced me as he had introduced others. He stood and said, “I now present to you young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” I stood up, and I said to myself, This is it. I looked to my right: I saw hundreds and thousands of young people, many of the young volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I looked to my left, and I saw many young people, young men, in the trees trying to get a better view of the podium. I looked straight out. And I started speaking.

It was an unbelievable feeling to see hundreds and thousands of people, black and white, sitting together, cheering. Many young people, men, women, they’re taking off their shoes and putting their feet into the water to cool off. It was a hot day. It was very hot in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.


Singer and activist

I remember it was hot. I remember what I was wearing. I remember singing. And I remember that ocean of people. I’d never seen anything like that. I remember the electricity in the air.


Singer and activist

We sang “If I Had a Hammer.” They knew it, and they sang. And the moment was created not by the three of us in a performance but by a quarter of a million people gathering together and singing with us and saying, This moment belongs to us together. That’s what singing together can do.

BELAFONTE: On the platform when these highly profiled, successful artists performed, it wasn’t just that they were sympathetic and very much involved in the ideals of the struggle, it was that that’s who they really were. They were artists, and they were superstars, and you could be both a powerfully received force and you can say the right thing. You can have a moral point of view.

BOND: I was giving Coca-Colas to the movie stars, and I can remember till my dying day giving a Coca-Cola to Sammy Davis Jr., and he said, Thanks, kid.

YARROW: Joyful doesn’t really describe it for me. It was like the physicalization of love. It was ecstatic perhaps, but it was not giddy and silly or “let’s have a good time.” It was a far deeper kind of joy. It went beyond joy. It was hard to describe, but it was the antithesis of fear, and it propelled us all into another channel in our lives.

ORROCK: I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was in the presence of courage. So often you read about courage in books. To be face to face and side by side with people who had made profound decisions to put at risk their own personal safety, their job, their home, the ability to support their family to go up in the face of the police-state atmosphere of the Deep South in order to get change was an overwhelming thought to me–the raw courage of people, to face police jailing you and beating you to the ground for the right to vote. So that was an overwhelming thing. I was so moved to think of the courage that it took for the people I was marching with to do what they were doing with their lives in very dangerous places, breaking the color line.

THOMAS: I was 21 years old, and I had this tremendous responsibility of helping to get this thing done. By the time the program started, I couldn’t get as close to the Lincoln Memorial as I wanted to, because I had a job to do. Our job was to keep walking around, make sure there are no problems, because we knew of some of the things the FBI had done in the civil rights movement, putting in an agent or provocateurs.


March on Washington attendee

Many of the speakers were people whose names were familiar, but you never would get the chance to see them. You’re talking 50 years ago, so we didn’t have the prominence of media. There wasn’t any instant replay or quick exposure. So when you saw names like Harry Belafonte–he was listed as one of those speakers–or you saw the names of the civil rights leaders, and there were many of them who spoke before Martin Luther King, you were proud to be there and glad to be there.


Seminary classmate of King’s

I just felt for King as he sat there waiting to be introduced. I knew that the way they listened to people who were making speeches in rallies like this one, there was always somebody in the background trailing that speech with printed material. And I knew that somebody had a pencil following every word to see whether King would make a mistake or not repeat what he had placed there on paper. And I couldn’t get to him to wink my eye or say to him, “Mike”–as we called him during the days of seminary–“come on, come on, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it.”


Speechwriter for King

A lot of care and thought was given as to the kind of speech that he should give. We knew that people were coming from all over the country, and they were looking for political leadership. They were looking for direction, particularly after Birmingham. Black fury had broken out in 36 states and over 200 cities, and people were coming. So we felt that Dr. King’s role was to give them political direction and moral reaffirmation of the validity of our struggle.

Now, among his advisers, there were those who were suggesting, as Ralph Abernathy would say, Martin, people are coming to the March on Washington because they’re coming to hear you preach!

MARCUS WOOD: When we were in seminary together, King would walk around the hall preaching. He had more experience in preaching than some of us, although I was nine years older than he was and pastoring a small church in West Virginia. But when he became very popular, he called us together and said, You all must stick by me, for I am going to dismantle this society. And we would jokingly say to him, King, if you try to dismantle this society that we’re in now, somebody’s going to shoot you. Somebody’s going to bring you down, because society is so ingrained with segregation. The culture has been born into segregation, and therefore it’s not going to change.

JONES: I’m standing on the platform about 50 feet behind him, and he is introduced by A. Philip Randolph in this sonorous voice: “At this time, I have the honor to present to you the moral leader of our nation. I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” The place goes crazy! I mean it’s just like an explosion of approval. I’m looking at the audience as he’s looking at them. Then as he’s speaking, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier on the program and who was his favorite gospel singer, interrupted him: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin. Tell ’em about the dream.”

I’m watching him from the back. He takes the text of the speech that he was reading, and he moves it to the side of the lectern. And then he grabs both sides of the lectern, and I say to the person standing next to me–whoever that was–I said, These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.



I think it’s when he starts to talk about the dream that like the greatest jazz musician, he just does an incredible solo.

BOND: His ability to summon from his memory and deviate from his written text was just remarkable to me. I make speeches all the time. I can’t do without a piece of paper in front of me. But he could just draw these ideas, draw these images, paint these pictures. It was just a remarkable performance. I’ve never seen anything as good as this ever, and I doubt if I ever will.


Freedom Rider

You know, at bottom, Dr. King is a musician. And if he was reciting the telephone book, the rhythms and transition to phrasing would bring you to an emotional acceptance.

AVERY: I get goose bumps when I think about it. He was at his best. That’s all I can say. But in his talking, and my mind wandering back to what I had been through that summer, and when he started talking about his children, I felt like, Wow, he’s talking about me. He’s talking to me.

ROBINSON: We listened very carefully to the words as if they were almost like instructions. We all wanted to do something, and we wanted to have goals that we were going to work toward. And the speech gave a lot of ideas in terms of that. It wasn’t just a spiritual thing. It was also very informative and instructive. We were looking for leadership, and he was offering it.

BOND: What was really wonderful about the March on Washington is this is the first time most white people watching this on television had ever seen Dr. King give a full speech. They’d heard snippets and pieces of his oratory, but he was such a wonderful speaker, and he made an argument for the rightness of black protest.

HOROWITZ: I think the biggest expenditure made was for the sound system. I remember Bayard being absolutely adamant that everybody on that Mall had to hear every minute of every speech. And it’s sort of amazing to think about that now if you think that Dr. King gave that speech without a Jumbotron–250,000 people in the trees down the Mall watched him and listened to him.

MAXINE WOOD: That “I have a dream”–to hear it, initially, was an important experience. To hear him give that message made you believe you did have a dream, and it was very inspiring. A lot of people probably had not focused on those possibilities. We live in realities, but the image that he gave was a future.

JONES: If you listen to the speech carefully–and this is important as we reflect now 50 years back–if you listen to the syntax of his reference to the dream, he does not speak in the present tense. He speaks in the future tense. He’s speaking in his hope and belief in America. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Future tense.

Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington was an affirmation of his prophetic belief that America had the capacity to be the best that it could be. The “I Have a Dream” speech was a summons, a call, to the collective conscience of America, that we can be better than this. We can be better than this!

BAEZ: There are some times when you know something is going to be historic. I was just at Woodstock–went back and revisited the place–and we knew that. And certainly by the time this few hundred thousand people had gathered, you knew that whatever it was you were going to say or do was going to be recorded as part of history.

ADELMAN: When I hear that speech–I mean this is what, 50 years later?–I still cry. It’s so extraordinary, but when he finished speaking, I really had a profound sense that it was now almost inevitable. Such a force had been unleashed that history was moving. He had spoken in front of Lincoln’s likeness, and I said, This is going to happen.

SMITH: It was a ritual–it was a procession of church. It was never, ever a march. It was a congregation that was answering the call.

YARROW: It changed the course of our lives. It gave us not only an internal sense of what we believed in being validated, but it gave us a sense of the community of commitment that was to change America. Not only in terms of African Americans, but to be able to say that ordinary human beings can gather together in large numbers, and if they gather together with heart and strength, they can change the course of history.

ORROCK: Think about this: The average white kid, to the degree they thought about it, we were taught all about democracy. You’re taught all about what we stand for, one nation, and undivided, liberty and justice for all, all those words we’d been taught. But those words applied to the white people. And we would all chant them and cite them and read them and study them and hear them from our teachers and not face this enormous contradiction that this doesn’t apply to everybody. Everybody’s not equal. Everybody can’t vote. Everybody can’t get a job when they apply for one, can’t live where they want to, doesn’t have the same shot at raising a family with a future.

BOND: If the goal was to normalize the civil rights movement, then the goal was achieved. Not everybody in the country said, Oh, I understand. But many people then understood what they had not understood before, that black people were dissatisfied, that the segregation system they faced was untenable. It could not be maintained, and it had to be changed.

BELAFONTE: In the end, the day was a complete win-win. The Kennedys heaved a huge sigh of relief that there was not one act of violence. And to see at the end everybody singing “We Shall Overcome” and all the arms linked–we’ve said it often, but it’s worth saying as often as necessary: there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And it was all of America. All of it. You went through that crowd and you couldn’t find any type missing, any gender, any race, any religion. It was America at its most transformative moment.

AVERY: The closing was–I couldn’t believe it. I’d been there for a whole week, and we worked in the office, we’d done all these things, and now this great march–it was just unbelievable.

THOMAS: It brought our struggle to the attention of the world. That was the most important impact that I thought it had. But insofar as me personally? I was going to continue to work. It was a motivating factor, but it just added to the amount of motivation that I already had.

ORROCK: Years later, I got a very special letter from my mother. Years later–after I’d been very involved and a full-time civil rights worker and always talking to my mother about what needed to change and why I was doing this–she wrote me a letter that she was really proud that I had understood this long before she did and long before most people like us had understood it, and that I had stood with Dr. King and with the civil rights movement, and that I had done the right thing, and that she was very proud of me.

LEWIS: After Dr. King had spoken, we went back down to the White House. President Kennedy invited us back down, and he stood in the door to the Oval Office and greeted each one of us. He was like a proud beaming father that everything had gone so well. He said to each one of us as he shook our hand, You did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King, he said, And you had a dream.


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