August 26, 2013

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON

D.C. Democratic delegate to Congress

There was something inevitable about the 1963 March on Washington, but it didn’t feel that way then. Yet, after 10 years of protests in the South, there was really no place else to go. When word came, I was in the Mississippi Delta, a law student working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I left to join the march staff. Washington, not Mississippi, was where the remedy was.

Our staff of amateurs, under the tutelage of the brilliant strategist and movement intellectual Bayard Rustin, was set to travel to the District the day before the march. At the last staff meeting, Rustin, with his penchant for detail, asked for a volunteer to stay all night in march headquarters in New York to help people get to Washington at the last minute. I volunteered. As a native Washingtonian,I knew coming the next morning meant traveling by plane and getting an eagle’s view of the developing march — or not. As we flew over Washington, I saw clumps of people and felt the uncertainty that had hung over the first mass march for civil rights begin to dissipate. How successful the march would be, however, was not clear from the air.

On the ground, standing in the shade near the statue of Lincoln, I felt exhilaration after each speech. The leaders seemed freed by the joyful exultations of the frequently responsive crowd. By the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the podium, I remember thinking, he had better be good. He did not disappoint. Dr. King brought to bear all the gifts of the Southern Baptist preacher he was, seeming to sing and speak at the same time, bringing the old cadences to new issues, lifting the crowd until there was no place to go and nothing to do except to “Thank God Almighty” for Dr. King’s vision that we would be “free at last.”

Large marches are routine today but were unprecedented in 1963. Nevertheless, most memorable to me were not the speeches. Perhaps because of the work of preparing for the march and the doubts about its success, my most lasting memory was the unending view of the people on the Mall. New demands — revise the Voting Rights Act, repeal Stand Your Ground laws, enact D.C. statehood — will update the 2013 march. The challenge today is to show a tangible result. Bayard Rustin would have accepted nothing less.

RAYMOND S. BLANKS

Washington

The fearless gathered around midnight at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hartford, Conn., to attend a prayer service before the long ride on chartered buses to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Our group — overwhelmingly black — left the church and boarded the buses singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” My mother was among the oldest while I, 17, was the youngest. Everyone soon fell asleep, knowing the day ahead would be long.

After our three buses parked, we walked toward the Mall with picnic baskets, having known that sufficient food service would not be available. A diverse mass of people arrived early, although the march would not start for hours. Excitement exploded as the leaders of the march began our walk. Maids and butlers, machinists and mothers locked arms with Hollywood’s finest, including Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster. Our voices singing civil rights songs mingled with the rising heat. We were graced with clear blue skies that Wednesday. Joy swept over the crowd as we learned that 200,000 had joined the event, double the expected number.

Before noon, the Mall was transformed into a place of prayer, protest and pride. We were using only soul force to advocate for equality.

A week earlier, I had been released from jail in Alabama. I had been among those who stood up against the vile injustice that oppressed and diminished blacks in Birmingham. Essentially, the march added momentum to the movement for justice that for nearly a decade — the freedom rides, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Albany movement, the campaign in Birmingham — also collectively demonstrated the determination and capacity of those on the social bottom to stand up and demand justice and equality. The march represented a bold agenda — not only to the political process but also arousing the nation’s conscience — and marked a new beginning where blacks did not beg but demanded to be treated with dignity. As John Lewis declared, “The revolution is at hand and we must free ourselves.” Many of us called ourselves “Freedom Fighters.”

We stood in solidarity at the Lincoln Memorial and heard a potent and prophetic word from “de Lawd,” as Martin Luther King Jr. was called, boldly challenging the nation to change. This serious event had a festive flavor as we departed from the Mall once again singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”

G.K. BUTTERFIELD

Democratic representative from North Carolina

In 1963, African Americans in the South were tangled in a web of official discrimination that prevented them from having quality schools, integrated public accommodations and other benefits of citizenship. They were denied the right to vote because of literacy tests and other devices that made it difficult to effectively participate in the electoral process.

The March on Washington, an idea first conceived by labor leaders and then civil rights leaders, was a demand to President John F. Kennedy and Congress to pass legislation to integrate public accommodations. Kennedy attempted to discourage the march, believing it would antagonize Southerners and foreclose any opportunity to pass legislation, but it proceeded despite the president’s concerns.

My father, Dr. G.K. Butterfield, was a North Carolina civil rights leader. Elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1953 after an intense voter registration drive to “teach” the literacy test to black citizens, he was defeated for reelection after the election method was changed from district to at-large elections. Dad admired national leaders and wanted to be a part of this history with his 16-year-old son.

We drove through the night, reaching Washington early on the morning of Aug. 28. After dressing at a hotel on Thomas Circle, we walked to the march at the Lincoln Memorial. It was a very hot day! I have vivid recollections of seeing black and white people lining the streets with signs and joining hands for a common purpose. I had never seen white people march for freedom in my home community.

We stood at the back of the reflecting pool and witnessed all of the speeches. We stood for hours. And Mahalia Jackson’s voice created the perfect plateau for Dr. King’s concluding speech.

President Kennedy was assassinated just 86 days later. There is no question that the March on Washington forced passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

JESSE L. JACKSON SR.

Founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition

On Aug. 28, 1963, I was fresh from jail in Greensboro, N.C., happy to be out, excited to be at the march, looking forward to hearing great speeches and thrilled to be in the presence of many of my heroes: Walter Reuther, A. Phillip Randolph, Floyd McKissick, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While I was excited, I was also aware that those in power were fearful that the mass demonstration would turn into a mass civil disturbance. I knew about the political fear because the press publicized it. There was an attempt by those who were either against or uneasy about the march to project scenarios of fear in order to discourage people from coming. Many D.C. residents were afraid to come because they thought that violence might occur.

But maybe my most memorable feeling is the sense of pride and dignity felt by all who marched that day — especially as we heard the words of Dr. King. It was an emotional day. I saw black veterans weeping. But we all felt motivated to go back South, to go back to wherever home was, and continue the fight to change our conditions and to change America for the better.