Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Looking Back on the March on Washington

In 1963, I was a graduate student at George Washington University and living on the university campus, not far from the Lincoln Memorial.  This provided a wonderful opportunity to take part in the 28 August 1963 March on Washington.  I was so captivated by this event that I wrote a piece on 29 August for my hometown newspaper, the Yakima Daily Republic in Yakima, Washington.  The paper published the letter in the S.I. Anthon column on 2 September 1963.  I managed to find a copy of the original letter titled "Impressions of the March on Washington," which I have retyped below on the 50th anniversary of this history-changing event.

Impressions of the March on Washington
29 August 1963

     The August 28th March on Washington is only one of the many manifestations of Negro discontent that has been shown this summer.  Being a resident of Washington, D.C., my wife and I had a close affinity to the events leading up to and including the March.  In fact, our apartment is only a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial, the center of the March activity.  In the days and weeks preceding the March, there was much talk of possible violence and ill-will that might take place.  Although Washingtonians placed less credence in these reports than the majority of the nation, there was still a tense feeling in Washington just prior to the 28th.  However, District of Columbia officials had the foresightedness to take the utmost precautions in order to prevent any trouble.  The preparations taken by District and March officials were greater than those taken during a presidential inauguration.  [I attended the inauguration of President John Kennedy in 1961]. These precautions included the banning of the sale of liquor for a twenty-six hour period preceding and during the demonstration, prohibiting of street parking within a wide radius of the March area, prohibiting of counter demonstrators such as George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazi Party, and the employment of several hundred special police in addition to the entire D.C. police force.
     The morning of the 28th was a weird one indeed.  On nearly every street corner within a wide radius of the March area, several District and special police officers were stationed.  Except for the roar of some 1500 chartered buses, there was almost no traffic.  The scene reminded me of what I would picture a city to be like under martial law.  However, the police were only posted to direct traffic and they did not interfere with the few pedestrians walking about.  For a short time, it looked as if the number of demonstrators who would assemble would fall short of the 100,000 expected.  By 11:00 A.M., however, the ranks of the demonstrators began to swell.  It was at this time that I walked down to the Lincoln Memorial.  Organ music had been playing all morning and its sound wafted through the trees at the serene setting of the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool.  By 11:30 the first marchers arrived at the Memorial after a short walk from the Washington Monument staging area.  Within minutes marchers began coming via every conceivable route from the staging area.  The marchers quickly filled the area in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  It was an impressive sight, one that I will long remember.  All morning long, the radio commentators had been describing the mood of the demonstrators as "festive". I would agree with this, but only with a distinct clarification.  The mood was one of "serious festivity". Having mingled with the demonstrators for nearly four hours, I came to the conclusion that the great majority of these people meant business and that this was no Sunday picnic.  I was also struck by the fact that between 15 and 20 percent of the marchers were white people, many of them students.  It was obvious from the banners that most of the organized groups had been organized by churches and labor unions.
     Before the speeches began, a group of several hundred marchers from Savannah, Georgia, walked around the Reflecting Pool singing freedom songs.  The March itself was somewhat disorganized, but that mass of people is to be commended for its orderliness and non-violence.  The demonstrators were also good-natured, polite, and restrained.  It was announced during the speeches that 210,000 people were gathered before the Lincoln Memorial.  This made the March the nation's largest civil rights demonstration.  The content of the speeches ranged from the moderateness of Roy Wilkins to the militant speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One thing is certain, this vast sea of humanity wanted to hear the militancy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  They especially wanted to hear the words, "we want equal rights NOW".  With the conclusion of the speeches and the benediction, the marchers in front of the Memorial, spontaneously joined hands and sang, "We Shall Overcome".
     This experience was a very moving one.  It is something that can never be learned in a college Social Psychology class.  Indeed, attendance at a meeting of this nature is a course in Social Psychology itself.  The August 28th Equal Rights March on Washington is over.  But in this summer of Negro discontent, you can bet that the lessons learned at this March will be carried back to every state in the United States.

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