March on Washington: August 28, 1963
By Raleigh Bailey
August 28, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the pivotal “March on Washington” demonstration in the struggle for civil rights in America, and those born in the last 50 years would have trouble visualizing the context of this historic event which galvanized the nation and Congress to move ahead on civil rights legislation. It is primarily remembered for the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but about 25 different people spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day. Approximately a quarter of a million people participated in the march. Almost by accident, I was able to participate in this event.
I attended a Methodist-affiliated college in Florida which was still segregated as private schools were exempted from desegregation requirements at that time. Public schools across the South were just starting to desegregate, but it was a bumpy process, sometimes dangerous and often frightening for the black youth who were blazing this trail of freedom. African-Americans could be arrested for drinking out of a white water fountain or sitting in a white area on a bus or sitting down in a white restaurant. They also were channeled into low paying farmworker, service, and construction jobs.
I was a young college student from Florida attending the annual Southeastern United States Methodist Student Movement conference in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, a short drive from Asheville. While the conference was primarily white, there were African American (we used the term “Negro” then) attendees, whom we called fraternal delegates. This conference was my first experience in a publicly desegregated environment. The conference participants were cautioned not to go into Asheville in mixed groups because it might cause an incident.
At one of the conference sessions someone reported on a proposed event in Washington, called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” to be held the next day. Sit-ins, marches, and other protests had been going on at different places across the South over the last three years, but this march appeared to be different. It was drawing nationwide attention, urging Congress to change the laws of the United States to assure and protect the freedoms of minorities, and urging the Justice Department to protect victims of racial discrimination. Proposed legislation included not only further elimination of segregation in nongovernmental arenas, but it also called for voting rights protection, nondiscrimination in hiring, and programs to address poverty.
Our conference decided to send delegates to the march. They asked for volunteers. I impetuously put up my hand. That afternoon I was in a car riding with three other delegates from our conference whom I did not know. I was the only white representative. We slowly wound down out of the mountains on old U.S. Route 70, heading across the Piedmont. We were headed toward Greensboro, a city I had never seen, to catch a bus for the rest of the trip. Around midnight we arrived at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a school I had never heard of, where people were gathering to ride buses. Several buses were parked on campus waiting for people. They filled up and left in unison, with participants singing freedom songs. More than 2000 buses, planes, trains, and cars filled with protestors descended on Washington that day.
We arrived in the early morning and parked somewhere around the mall. Organizers told us to remember where our bus was parked and meet back there an hour after the event was over. From that point on until that evening, I did not see anyone that I knew, but I was swept up in a crowd that flowed like a tidal wave across the city. Many of the marchers gathered behind signs signifying different groups, labor union groups, church groups, civic groups. While African-Americans predominated, the groups were racially mixed, which impressed me. I walked behind a sign that said National Student Christian Federation for a while but then lost them. The wave flowed around government buildings, along city streets and eventually peaked around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It was hot. There was no room to move. At one point I saw a woman faint, and the crowd lifted her up and passed her along over their heads, to a makeshift first aid tent.
I gradually wiggled over under the shade of a tree and pulled up on a limb to see an ocean of people that stretched as far as I could see. From that vantage point I could see the steps of the Memorial and the speakers standing there. Speeches had started and I was close to a loudspeaker. It was lunch time. I was hungry but still could not move. People around me had brought food and began passing it around. I remembered a story about loaves and fishes. Several powerful and progressive leaders spoke. Musical interludes were provided by Mahalia Jackson and others.
At one point I recognized the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking. The crowd around me began responding in turn. It was mesmerizing. The Martin Luther King speech, near the end of the scheduled program, did stand out. He said the Negro is “…crippled by manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination.” They were “…islands of poverty in a vast ocean of prosperity.” He described the marches and protests as “whirlwinds of revolt (that) will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” He called for justice, for protection, for job opportunities without discrimination. He called for nonviolent action in response to violence and oppression. It ended with a catalyzing moment as he shared his dream for the children of America, that they would come and hold hands together as they moved forward in America’s future.
Eventually the speaking was over. The crowd slowly began to disperse. It was a laborious process. Within about an hour I had made my way back to my bus, which was actually quite close. We crept out of the capital and arrived back at NC A&T around midnight. My group reassembled and started our drive back to the mountains. We arrived the next morning and reported on the march to the conference participants.
The full impact of this March on Washington would not be clear for months, but it was clear that this was a turning point in our nation’s consciousness about the harm of segregating a portion of the population and the importance of full freedom for everyone.
Tragically, President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. However, Lyndon Johnson, in his new role as president, used his skills as a diplomat and politician to push major Civil Rights legislation through Congress the next year, changing the course of American history. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 were passed. Building on the same momentum and new sense of consciousness, the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed the following year, moving our immigration laws towards welcoming newcomers from all areas of the world.
I heard Martin Luther King preach another time when he was the guest preacher at his father’s church in Atlanta. I went to the service, and I was a conspicuous visitor but felt welcomed. His sermon was called something like “Salvation is Integration.” In his sermon he drew from the classical Greek language of the New Testament, Biblical theology, and contemporary psychology. This message was delivered in a powerful and moving manner. The congregation was very responsive. He said that sin in Greek could be translated as “missing the mark.” Therefore, salvation was meeting the mark, joining or integrating with the mark. He noted that Jesus in the New Testament said to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. King said that first you must accept yourself and love yourself for who you are. Then you can love your white segregationist neighbor. He needs to be loved too. As you do this, you are also loving God. We are all children of God and need God’s love too.
The Civil Rights movement did not end with the March on Washington in August of 1963. Much progress has been made since that March, but issues of racism remain a problem for people of color, and issues of legal rights for immigrants have become a front page issue. Poverty adds to the chasm of disintegration. Sometimes it is still necessary to take to the streets, to hold marches and protests to focus public attention and call politicians to action. That is all part of democracy, our history, and our nation’s constitution. Racism still continues and poverty is growing. These afflictions especially impact newcomers. We can all have a dream about freedom, justice, and integration, but we must also reach out to those who are marginalized and march together to make that dream a reality.