Even now much is made about the size of the crowd. It was, you will still be told, the largest civil rights demonstration ever held in the United States and the largest crowd to have assembled in Washington, D.C.
These facts are repeated solemnly, with a sense of awestruck reverence, as if they have any bearing on the event or add special significance to it. They do not.
Size was not what mattered about the March on Washington 20 years ago. The speech, despite all the mythology, was not what made the day historic, either.
Certainly the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s address from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before a throng of more than 200,000 massed along the Reflecting Pool grounds and dominated by the Washington Monument and Capitol dome shimmering in the distance, deserves all the superlatives now so uniformly attached to it. Undeniably great his speech was--eloquent, stirring, memorable, splendid--but it was not oratory that elevated Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, into a date out of the ordinary.
Of the March on Washington it can be said that its sum was greater than any of its parts, and that what happened in Washington that day affected the life of the nation in ways still difficult to understand.
In simple yet mysterious fashion the strands of history came together on that August day. As King said later, "explosively, America's third revolution--the Negro Revolution--had begun."
So it had, and when it had played out a different America emerged, one almost unrecognizable from that which existed in the summer of 1963.
The March on Washington succeeded beyond the greatest expectations of its planners in transcending political quarrels of the time, bridging differences between competing groups of Americans and speaking to the conscience of the country. It succeeded because it embraced the most enduring and basic American values: equality and justice for all. Its very simplicity was its greatest strength.
By the time the day's ceremonies were over, the civil rights movement led by King had been forged into a unified whole. It had become a national instead of a sectional movement, ecumenical in spirit, supported solidly by members of white congregations, parishes and synagogues. It drew its strength from its diversity. Across the country blacks and whites, Catholics and Jews, Protestants and agnostics, Northerners and Southerners, liberals and conservatives alike formed the ranks of what King called "a nonviolent army." It represented the best in America.
It also represented the beginning of the end of the old segregated society that had existed, in one form or another, ever since 1619 when a battered Dutch privateer beat around Cape Henry, tacked slowly up the James River and dropped anchor off Jamestown to deposit the first black slaves in America.
Within a few short years of the March on Washington, the legal barriers impeding the rights to full citizenship had been struck everywhere in the nation. Not that the racial millennium has occurred, but the country that resulted stands light years away from the closed American society then.
None of that was apparent when the crowds began gathering in Washington from around the nation. On the contrary, seen now in retrospect two decades later, perhaps the most remarkable fact about that event was the way it was viewed then. A day that today stands as a symbol of peaceful assembly and as an affirmation of the democratic process at work was then regarded in Washington, and throughout America, with fear and foreboding.
It's hard to realize now the dread with which the march was greeted in many of the so-called "most responsible" quarters of the nation's capital, including the White House. President Kennedy would not even meet with the leaders before the march began, although he did when it was over. An ominous sense that something explosive and violent was about to be touched off in the very heart of the capital lay beneath the surface of that summer day. And not without legitimate reason, either.
To understand the full impact on the capital and watching nation--millions participated in the scene through black-and-white television screens, primitive by today's TV standards, but powerful nonetheless to those who saw it--you have to appreciate the tension that gripped America that year of 1963. As King wrote later, and accurately, "in the summer of 1963 the knife of violence was. . . close to the nation's aorta."
He sketched the contemporary scene leading up to the march this way:
"For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground, just as they had become the battleground in the 1830s of England's tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base."
That is not too overdrawn.
Month by month, the civil rights pressures increased throughout the South and threatened to explode. Sometimes they did.
The year itself bore a special relevance to blacks (a term of disparagement then; "Negro" was the appropriate description) demonstrating for their rights. A century had passed since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. Virtually all the protests of 1963 made public note of the unfulfilled promise implicit in that centennial anniversary.
In the South, nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its ruling calling for desegregation of public schools "with all deliberate speed," the pace of integration was still woefully slow. Only 9 percent of black students were attending integrated schools there. As King repeatedly pointed out, at that rate it would be the year 2054 before integration in Southern schools became a reality.
The closing years of the 1950s, a decade inaccurately thought of today as being so benign, had witnessed extraordinary scenes of blacks directly challenging white authority throughout the states of the Old Confederacy. The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the sit-ins at all-white lunch counters, the freedom rides all began to dominate the nation's headlines and its consciousness as the '50s ended. The protests gained in fervor, intensity and scale during the early John F. Kennedy years of the 1960s.
Late 1962 brought the bloody disturbances at Oxford, Miss., when mobs fought U.S. forces sent to the University of Mississippi campus to protect one black student, James Meredith, who was registering to attend classes. In the months leading up to the March on Washington, a series of dramatic and fateful events continued to sweep across the Deep South.
That April, King led his Southern Christian Leadership Conference forces to Birmingham, Ala. Hundreds of blacks were arrested on such charges as "parading without a permit" and "loitering" after demonstrating on behalf of such elemental American rights as the right to register and vote. King himself was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement there (and produced his memorable, widely quoted and discussed "Letter from a Birmingham Jail.")
The following month, May, saw tens of thousands of blacks participating in a wave of demonstrations against segregation. A black leader's home was bombed in Birmingham and so was a newly desegregated motel there. Birmingham police unleashed dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on demonstrators, many of them small children. President Kennedy dispatched federal troops to bases around Birmingham to be ready for deployment should further violence occur. At the same time, Alabama's Gov. George C. Wallace, whose inaugural vow had been to pledge "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" defied the order of a U.S. district judge in Birmingham that two blacks be admitted to the University of Alabama. Wallace promised "to bar the entrance of any Negro who attempts to enroll."
June brought even greater disturbances. In Jackson, Miss., a sniper lying in ambush shot and killed the local NAACP leader, Medgar W. Evers, as he walked from his car to his home after attending a civil rights rally in a black church. He was shot in the back by a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle. Just a day before his murder, and despite a personal appeal from President Kennedy, Wallace kept his promise and stood in front of the University of Alabama auditorium door to prevent the two black students from entering.
His action precipitated another federal-state civil rights crisis. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, armed with a proclamation from Kennedy ordering Wallace to cease his defiance, was met with another refusal by the governor to step aside. The president then federalized the Alabama National Guard, whose commander informed Wallace it was his "sad duty" to compel him step aside and let the blacks enter, which Wallace did.
More racial protests, and more fears of greater violence to come, occurred that summer. It was against this grim background that King led his March on Washington.
Washington and the country held its collective breath as the day approached. A revolution, it seemed, was in the making--and not the nonviolent one espoused by King.
What happened was different. The march was a model of orderliness, civility and good will. It was about as middle class as you could find. These were not ragged revolutionaries waving pitchforks and shouting martial slogans as they descended on their capital. They were mainstream America passing peaceably through the tree-lined grounds of a placid summer scene.
Stop and examine the still photographs of those marchers as they proceeded to their rendezvous at the Lincoln Memorial. In the front ranks, all in suits and ties despite the hot August sunshine, all with arms linked as they marched, was a sea of humanity, black and white, mixed together. A blizzard of placards stood out over their heads. Not a one bore anything resembling a revolutionary message:
We March for Jobs for All NOW!. . . We Demand Voting Rights NOW!. . . UAW Says: End Segregated Rules in Public Schools. . . I.U.E. for Full Employment.
Finally came the moment when King spoke.
Read his words carefully now, without the emotion of that moment 20 years ago and the mystique that has grown up around it, and you'll discover an old-fashioned quality instantly recognizable to a majority of Americans, past and present.
It was a Southern Baptist minister who preached that day before a congregation that included much of America. His words were entirely familiar. They had been sounded in churches and synagogues throughout American history, and King sounded them again. He evoked the oldest of American dreams about peace and brotherhood, equality and freedom. Instead of disturbing the public, he was reassuring. He simply asked people to be true to themselves and to the ideals they believed best represented their country.
Wonder of wonders, they did. In the process, together they changed the country. Nothing that has occurred in the generation since, whether race riots or assassinations or sense of national questioning about problems at home or abroad, has altered one historic fact. The March on Washington set in motion a different America. A better one stands in place today.