The work, in progress

The work, in progress

A day of unity and vision inspired a half-century of pushing for change

Published on August 23, 2013

Above: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gestures during his speech on Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington on the National Mall. (AP photo)

Early that morning of Aug. 28, 1963, the march organizers worried whether people would answer their call. But the foot soldiers of a growing civil rights movement were on their way, some 200,000 of them, determined to stand together and demand equality.

They boarded buses in the middle of the night, singing hymns with strangers. They crowded onto trains. One contingent marched from Brooklyn; one man roller-skated from Chicago. They dressed as if they were coming to the nation’s capital to close a deal. Which, in a way, is what they sought to do. They were already moving when the organizers, 10 men across, prepared to lead the way.

“They kind of just pushed us,” John Lewis recalled. Ask those who were there about that day, and they will tell you that they feel its power still. The words were glorious, the joy was palpable, the sense of unity felt invincible. “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” said the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson near the podium. “Tell them about the dream.” And when he did, setting aside his prepared speech, it was as if history began to move with the people.

Half a century later, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is a historic pivot, a moment preserved in black-and-white footage of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and in film of blacks and whites together. (Did you attend the 1963 march? Share your stories and photos)

Post photographers caught up with some of the attendees of the original March on Washington five decades later to learn how the civil rights demonstration altered the course of their lives.


(Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

(Family photo)

Then: When their pregnant mother was instructed by her doctor not to attend the march, the Kelly siblings (Meg, 3; Michael, 6; Katy, 7) instead set up a lemonade stand in front of the ancestral family home at 404 Constitution Ave. NE. The two African American boys in the photo are unidentified. The Kellys’ father had watched the Ku Klux Klan parade past this spot in 1926. His children watched Civil Rights activists march for justice in 1963. In 2009, the third generation of Kellys left from this place to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration. “When I think change is slow — and it is sometimes,” Katy pauses to reflect on the progression the house has seen. “But — three generations, from the same point of view.”

Now: Meg (left) and Katy stand in the spot of the old lemonade stand. Their brother, Michael, a journalist with the Washington Post and New York Times, was the first reporter killed in Iraq.


(Michel du Cille / The Washington Post)

(Associated Press)

Then: Roosevelt Nesmith, a New Jersey activist who went on to become president of the Southern Burlington County Branch of the NAACP and lobbied against job discrimination and unfair zoning laws, holds his three-year-old son, Roosevelt Noel, surrounded by piles of protest signs.

Now: The younger Roosevelt Nesmith remembers, as a child, longing to wear a sandwich board in one of his father’s protests.

“When I got big enough, probably seven or eight, to wear a sign…[It] was a passage out of childhood, to be sort of like my dad.” Nesmith, 53, is now a Civil Rights lawyer, and has opened an adult daycare center serving elderly and disabled members of his community.


(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

(Johnson Publishing Company)

Then: Staff members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sit on the  steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Chairman John Lewis was asked to revise his planned speech at the last minute when others worried the language — a reference to Sherman’s march through the South — was too fiery. “John, for the sake of unity, we’ve come together,” organizer A. Philip Randolph told him. “Let’s stay together.”  Left to right: Mildred Forman, SNCC staff; Courtland Cox, SNCC field Secretary; James Forman, SNCC Executive Sec and John Lewis, SNCC Chairman.

Now: Lewis, 73 and now a longtime congressman (D-Ga.), on the steps where he rewrote his speech. (Read the transcript of an interview with Lewis this summer)


Left photo: Starting sixth from the left, Courtland Cox, Harold Aaronoff, Sandy Feldman and Charles McDew (former chairman of SNCC). Starting fourth from the right, George Green, Joe Lewis, Blyden Jackson and Rachelle Horowitz. Right photo: Starting on left, Elenor Holmes Norton, Hollis Watkins, Jessie Harris, Joyce Ladner, Robert “Bob” Moses, Dorie Ladner, Lafayette Surney, Nancy Stearns, James Forman (executive director of SNCC), Mildred Forman, last three are unknown. (Can you identify others? Let us know.) (Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos)

From left: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Joyce Ladner and Rachelle Horowitz (Marvin Joseph, Getty Images and Michel du Cille)

Then: As the March on Washington comes to an end, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee stand between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

After: Young activists who were formed by the March carried on legacies of service throughout their careers.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) fights for District voting rights now, as she did in the 1960s. Joyce Ladner became the first interim female president of Howard University, a sociologist, and an author of books on race and culture. Rachelle Horowitz served on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, and was political director of the American Federation of Teachers.

“It was a historic day,” she remembers now, of the March. “It was a step towards progress, but certainly it wasn’t the end.

Photographer Danny Lyon recalls the moment he snapped the above photo: “As if changing John’s speech weren’t enough, ‘We Shall Overcome’ was left off the program because what everyone was really afraid of was a demonstration (‘riot’ in establishment parlance), and the powers that be thought the song would be provocative. So when the official program had ended and the untold tens of thousands of marchers were hustled off to their waiting buses, all the SNCC people, along with their wives, lovers, and friends, spontaneously started to sing. Because we were not “supposed” to do it, the singing became a brief moment of defiance. I was particularly annoyed when we got to ‘We Shall Overcome.’ As usual I could not hold hands and sing with everyone else. I had to step out and make a picture.” – From “Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement” (p. 84)


(Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

(Courtesy Sarah Davidson)

Then: After driving through the night after the March, Sarah J. Davidson, 15, in white dress, and Dianna Watson Ezell, 16, got off the bus and prayed when they arrived back home in Little Rock, where Davidson was the youth president of the local NAACP.

Now: Davidson got degrees from Howard and Catholic universities and was a D.C. public school teacher. Watson Ezell’s mother sent her to live with an aunt to get away from the activist life. She got married, raised a family and, after her husband died in 1986, went back to college and became a teacher.

The two reunited and attended the anniversary March together on Saturday.

Photos by Michel du Cille and Nikki Kahn
Story by Monica Hesse and Ann Gerhart
Edited by Ann Gerhart
Designed by Tim Richardson and Tim Wong
Photo editing and research Dee Swann, Nate Grann and MaryAnne Golon

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