Editor’s Note: This is an except from Stan Salett’s The Edge of Politics: Stories from the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty and the Challenges of School Reform.
The origins of the March actually went back to 1941, when A. Philip Randolph, the leader and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, conceived of it as protest against employment discrimination. Randolph had built the Brotherhood into the most powerful African-American labor organization, with the capacity to seriously affect the operation of the nation’s rail system. Randolph called off the march only when Roosevelt agreed to issue an executive order establishing the first Fair Employment Practices Commission. But the idea of a March on Washington had taken root and 22 years later was being actively considered again. But Randolph himself had not been a leading figure in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. When he suggested in the fall of 1962 that there be a march on Washington to be called the “Emancipation March for Jobs,” to take place on January 1, 1963, the civil rights organizations were not interested.
For many of us the action was not in Washington, D.C. (except what we were doing locally) but in communities all around the country. For the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King, Jr., the struggle was focused on Birmingham, Alabama (or as we called it in those days, “Bombingham”). Birmingham was still the most segregated and racially hostile city in the country. CORE was focusing on cities nationwide. The other major civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Urban League similarly had their own agendas. Working together did not come easily. Yet the events in the spring and summer seemed to do exactly that—force us to work together.
Bull Conner and the Birmingham police became more violent in their attempts to suppress the non-violent demonstrations led by Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, was assassinated by white racists in Jackson. On June 19 President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights bill. Now there was a reason to come to Washington. King called A. Philip Randolph to tell him that he was ready to discuss a march.
Gradually, and not without pressure, the other groups came into line and met on July 2 in New York City. Randolph urged the others to accept Bayard Rustin as the chief organizer. Rustin was a controversial figure to several of the organizations. Openly gay and a former member of the Communist party, Rustin had some obvious downsides as the public face of the march. The assembled groups, pressed by Randolph, accepted Rustin as the March coordinator and scheduled the event for August 28. They also agreed that their local D.C. organizations would do much of the planning and March logistics.
Washington–CORE would represent the national organization on the planning committee, and Julius Hobson asked me to join him on the committee. The Reverend Walter Fauntroy represented SCLC and Reverend King, Sterling Tucker represented the Urban League and several people represented the NAACP. The SNCC was the least involved. Our meetings were relatively free of conflict. Maybe it was because the logistical issues were so enormous. At first we estimated that about 100,000 people would participate. As we got word of the growing numbers of bus charters, our estimates increased and increased and increased. About 450 buses were scheduled to leave from the 143rd Street Armory in New York City. Another 80 buses supplied by CORE were scheduled to leave from 125th Street. Special trains were chartered from Penn Station in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville and Philadelphia. Eventually, 2,200 buses would come.
With this size of a crowd, security would be a major problem. Among the participating groups CORE was assigned the heavy responsibility of providing security for the March (the “big six” civil rights organizations became the “top 10” with the addition of the National Conference for Interracial Justice, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the American Jewish Congress, and the United Auto Workers). My job within the coalition was to help prepare the security for the March. From the outset, we assumed that the Washington, D.C. police would be of little help. After all, we knew them. These were the folks who were arresting some of us every weekend and throwing us with unconcealed hostility into their wagons and cells. This was a predominantly white, racist police force that we hoped would not stand in our way.
The solution to providing security for the March was to supplement our own efforts with off-duty policemen. The main outside force was drawn from an African-American association of New York City police called the Guardians. These officers would not be in uniform and would not carry weapons, but they would carry handcuffs. Rustin insisted that the off-duty police not be involved in preventing assaults by any right-wing white groups. These problems would be left to the D.C. police, the FBI and our own internal security force led by CORE. Part of my role was to help train our people and assign them to positions on the Mall. Our plan was to have 10 sections, with 50 trained people in each section. CORE’s response to potential violence was to reply with nonviolence. We, of course, would carry no weapons. We would surround any threat with our bodies. This was no philosophical construct. It was something we practiced night after night in July and August.
The March was to take place on the Mall, beginning at the Washington Monument and ending at the Lincoln Memorial, one mile away. Bayard Rustin set up his offices in Harlem. His immediate focus was to raise money to pay for buses and signs and leaflets. Each local affiliated organization was to be responsible for their group. Rustin sent out instructions that each bus would have a captain who would be responsible for seeing that their marchers stayed together and knew where the bus was parked for the return trip. People were urged to wear their Sunday best: men in suits, women in dresses. There would be none of the casual attire that marchers in subsequent years would wear. We were determined to show the American public that we were as main stream as they were even if we were willing to be beaten and jailed and worse for our beliefs. Everyone would be urged to leave Washington after the March. This would be a demonstration, not an invasion.
The day of the March, August 28, 1963, was warm and humid, but not as stifling hot as late summer Washington days could be. This would prove to be fortunate, for a hot day would have caused great strain on our untested medical facilities. I had assigned myself a security group to cover the area immediately to stage right of the Lincoln Memorial and stretching back to the edge of the reflecting pool.
We all arranged to meet at the base of the Washington Monument at 6 a.m., so I could run through final instructions. The Washington Monument that day was a scene of great confusion, with many groups, including the American Nazi Party, trying to get organized. I had led my group through the basic elements of our training in the nights leading up to this day. We planned how we would identify and surround anyone wanting to do harm to the marchers, how we would communicate through walkie-talkies and messengers and where my station would be.
Just after I finished and my group was dispersing, an NBC television crew rushed up and asked me to bring the group back together and repeat what I had said because they hadn’t been able to film all of it. With a few choice swear words, I told them that this wasn’t being done for their benefit and to “bug off.” Thinking about this incident years later, I suppose in some ways the entire March was being done for TV so that the country as a whole could see the mass movement we had become. But these were later thoughts; at the time I just wanted to get my people into position before the marchers arrived at the Lincoln Memorial.
By 7 a.m. there were fewer people than we had expected. Was this really going to happen? But the trains and buses began to arrive and by 9:30 a.m. there were more than 40,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument. By 11 a.m. the crowd had grown to more th ver the country, what has never been fully understood is that most of the marchers did not come from far out of town. The majority came from the greater Washington/Baltimore area. As we were setting up at the Lincoln Memorial, we later heard that an informal event was happening back between the Washington Monument and the Ellipse where Odetta, Josh White and many others were singing to the growing crowd. Burt Lancaster and other Hollywood celebrities gave short speeches. But the marchers were ready to march and, without any of the known civil rights leaders in attendance, the crowd began to move toward the Lincoln Memorial. The “top ten” had been meeting with President Kennedy and had to be rushed through the moving crowd along Constitution Avenue in order to get to the front.
From my vantage point, under a stand of trees at the Lincoln Memorial, I could see the thickening crowd and the main body of speakers appear at the front stage. The speaker system was not functioning completely. The original system had been sabotaged the night before and had been replaced with the help of the Army Signal Corps. I learned later that there was conflict among the sponsoring organizations over the speech John Lewis, SCLC’s representative, was about to give. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle objected to what he believed was violent language. Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers was concerned that Lewis would be too critical of President Kennedy. All of this was resolved hurriedly behind the stage and unknown to the growing crowd in front.
My immediate concerns were to look for signs of threat and disturbance. Fortunately, there were no incidents of violence throughout the day. In my sector, we had some people fall out of the trees. We tried, not successfully, to keep people from dipping into the reflecting pool, and we had some people pass out from the heat and excitement of the day. I didn’t hear all of the speeches. Jim Farmer, who was scheduled to speak for CORE, was in jail in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Farmer refused to be bailed out while 230 others remained in jail. He asked Floyd McKissick, CORE’s national chairman, to represent him and read his message, which read in part:
“I wanted to be with you with all my heart on this great day. My imprisoned brothers and sisters wanted to be there too. I cannot come out of jail while they are still in; for their crime was the same as mine—demanding freedom now. Some of us may die, like William L. Moore [a white postman from Baltimore, Maryland, who had been shot to death in northeastern Alabama on April 23, 1963, while carrying a sign urging ‘Equal Rights for All,’ during a walk from Tennessee to Mississippi] or Medgar Evers, but our war is for life, not for death, and we will not stop our demand for FREEDOM NOW. We will not stop till the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.”
The day was now getting long, and many of us were feeling the effects of too little sleep. The tensions we had felt in steeling ourselves to face violence or whatever unpredictable disruptions our opponents could throw at us had subsided. Mahalia Jackson sang the moving spiritual, “I Been Buked and I Been Scorned,” which seemed to move the crowd again. Rabbi Prinz, whose son was a classmate of mine at Brandeis, then spoke about the Holocaust and how all of us must learn from that experience and not become a nation of onlookers and stand by while some of our citizens were being denied their basic rights and are beaten and murdered. Prinz declared, “It [our nation] must speak up and act, from the president down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea, and the aspiration of America itself.”
During most of the speeches I was not playing close attention to the words. My job was to watch the watchers. But when Martin Luther King, Jr., began to speak, I tried to divide my concentration. I had heard King speak a few years earlier in Boston at the Ford Hall Forum. He had spoken then about the Montgomery bus boycott, but with such erudition and classical references in his rhetoric that I felt both emotionally moved and intellectually impressed. The speaker system still was not completely effective in my section. But when King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” I heard it and saw the crowd responding. There were “amens” and “you tell ‘em.”
King had broken through the exhaustion that many were feeling so late on that long day. He had planned to end his speech with a call to the audience to return to their communities and continue the struggle. The others in the coalition also had given King a time limit for his remarks, wanting to show themselves as a broad-based group with no single figurehead. King decided on the spot to go beyond any limits and deliver what became the most moving speech of our lives. He slowed down his cadence and talked about his dream for America and for his own children, “where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” He talked about freedom and faith and said finally,
“And when we let freedom ring from every village, and every hamlet and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children— black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
And then the day ended, but not for me. There was the cleaning up to do. The trash of 250,000 people, tons of it, had to be picked up. All of the cable lines, the portable bathrooms and banners had to be removed. We were determined to leave this special place as if we had never been there at all. And we did. We returned to our work in our communities inspired yet mindful that the struggle for full civil rights had to continue—a reminder made all too real when less than three weeks later “Bombingham” again tragically erupted. On Sunday, September 16, four 14-year-old girls were murdered during a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In D.C., CORE went out into the streets and brought out more than 7,000 people. The struggle would continue.
Stan Salett has been a policy adviser to the Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton administrations. He now lives in Kent County, Maryland.