Eric Kulberg was an 18-year-old intern in the summer of 1963 when he asked his boss for the day off so he could attend the March on Washington.
“What are you, a n----- lover or something?” Kulberg’s superior at the Department of Interior asked.
“Uh-huh. I guess so,” Kulberg blurted out.
The exchange between Kulberg and his boss, who was also white, didn’t sway the young man’s resolve to march. After the boss told him, “Go ahead — you’ll have a job when you get back,” Kulberg took his Argus C3 camera and Kodachrome film to the roof of the Interior building to take photographs of the buses rolling in. Then he joined the crowd walking around the Tidal Basin toward the Lincoln Memorial, one of between 75,000 and 95,000 white people who joined the swelling, predominantly black crowd.
“Seeing everybody drinking from the same water fountain, that hit me,” Kulberg recalls. “I’d never seen Jim Crow, but still it hit me at the time.”
In the sweep of the day, the presence of the tens of thousands of white people joining the mass of African Americans was mostly a passing mention, but they were essential to the strategy behind the march.
“The idea really was to say to those people in the middle, white folks in the middle, ‘You have to come and support this movement. You can’t sit on the fence anymore,’ ” remembers Rachelle Horowitz, who coordinated transportation for the March on Washington as an aide to lead organizer Bayard Rustin.
To reach those “white folks in the middle,” March organizers had to ensure that their movement not be seen as solely a “Negro thing.”
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came at a moment when many white Americans felt personally disconnected from the burgeoning civil rights movement — even if they supported its aims. At the time, nearly three-fourths of whites said in a national survey that “Negroes should have the right to use the same parks, restaurants and hotels as white people,” but many fewer were doing anything to actively support the movement.
The early events of 1963 had already risked allowing whites to see the race problem as a Southern phenomenon and the civil rights issue as blacks vs. whites. Freedom movements in Greenwood, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala., resulted in thousands of blacks being arrested for marching to register to vote or participating in peaceful lunch-counter sit-ins and pickets. The “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham sent across the globe violent images of snarling police dogs attacking black children dressed in loafers and sweaters. White lawmen abused their power. Hoodlums set fire to the meeting rooms of civil rights groups. In parts of middle America, the movement and the segregationist pushback were seen as extreme — hardly relatable.
“What do you Negroes want?” whites often asked Courtland Cox, then a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was based in New York and spoke before seemingly liberal white audiences in the North as he went about raising money for the cause. He later served as an SNCC representative in the March on Washington’s Harlem planning office.
“You’d talk about the South and the barriers and so forth and inevitably the first question was, ‘Do you want to marry my daughter?’ They didn’t understand,” says Cox. “ ‘What do you Negroes want?’ That was the big question.”
If executed with near perfection, the March on Washington could reach the white family in Toledo and pique their interest with a scene they had likely never seen before: throngs of demonstrators forming a joyously dense, multiracial crowd. Broadcast around the world, carried live in the United States, the march would assuage latent fears of “race-mixing” with scenes of brotherhood, answering that lingering question — “What do Negroes want?” — once and for all.
Gathered on July 2, 1963, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, the six men who led the nation’s largest civil rights groups hashed out the details of the nonviolent show of force planned for late summer. In that meeting room sat the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, the SNCC’s John Lewis and the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer. The 74-year-old black union leader A. Philip Randolph was the elder statesman and march chairman who had brought them all together. They called themselves “the Big Six,” and their organizations all had interracial support but were predominantly black, as was their leadership.
With less than eight weeks before the big day, Randolph and the others decided that they would add four more leaders to their roster: Four white men were invited to join the six blacks.
It was a strategic move, says David Levering Lewis, a historian of the movement. “Unless it could be shown quite graphically, dramatically, how important it was to white people that black people wanted change, we wouldn’t have gotten there,” he says.
Letters sent out by Rustin’s team soon included a call to action on behalf of what was now the Big 10, the six black men plus a rabbi, a Catholic leader, a Protestant minister and a labor boss.
The Big Six first invited AFL-CIO President George Meany to join their ranks. Meany declined, thinking a demonstration in Washington not politically savvy while Congress was considering President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation.
The spot reserved for him was passed on to United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther, who was then a household name, having helped to unionize Detroit’s auto industry. But despite Reuther’s backing of civil rights, many of his union locals were not convinced that “one for all and all for one” and “workers unite” should apply to blackworkers. It was the same issue in liberal church denominations. The leadership pledged opposition to segregation, but Sunday in and Sunday out, churches remained segregated.
“Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us, plus the four. We became like brothers,” Lewis remembers. “When we would have disagreements, Randolph, in his deep baritone, would say things like, ‘Brothers, let’s stay together.’ ”
In the weeks before the march, the Big 10 had to work to stay together amid pressure from the Kennedy administration, which at first had disliked the idea of a march.
“Somebody from the White House is calling somebody every day and telling them, ‘You don’t want to march,’ ” Horowitz recalls. “So, they’re calling in Roy Wilkins. They are calling in Dr. King.”
From allies in Congress, a body then of white men, came a string of what became known around the march’s headquarters as the “latrine letters.” Had they thought about where 100,000 people would use the restroom, the senators wanted to know. Rustin and his team responded by renting sufficient numbers of portable toilets.
The Kennedy White House also kept track of the march plans through alliances and political connections. Reuther was close to Kennedy. White House adviser Louis Martin, who had been a pioneering black journalist and Democratic operative, also kept his ear to the ground and reported back as the planning progressed.
Mass demonstrations of any sort were rare; there was hope in Washington that it would fizzle.
The stretched nerves began to fray the night before the march, when drafts of John Lewis’s speech were circulated by members of SNCC, which hoped to generate buzz for the youngest of the day’s official speakers.
In prepared remarks, Lewis threatened to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did — nonviolently,” and also criticized Kennedy’s civil rights bill as being too weak. It rattled the Big 10’s alliance.
Washington’s Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who was to give the invocation at the march, said he would not speak if Lewis’s speech was not altered. (O’Boyle’s role was to be symbolic. It was Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, who was the Catholic member of the Big 10.)
Lewis chafed at O’Boyle’s interference. “I didn’t know him from Adam’s house cat, and he probably didn’t know me,” Lewis says.
The fear seemed to be based on how the militant notes in the speech would land on white ears.
Reuther told Lewis he shouldn’t speak ill of the White House civil rights bill. Wilkins sided with Reuther, and he and Lewis ended up wagging their fingers in each other’s faces.
“We were all so uptight about giving the appearance of [the] commitment and civility and strength of the nonviolent movement,” recalls Berl Bernhard, Kennedy’s staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who spoke often with Wilkins. “It was like, ‘Don’t light this incendiary situation because it could get out of control.’ ”
The aging Randolph stopped the infighting by asking Lewis and the other young people to bow to the wishes of their elders and pare back the rhetoric.
All along, there was racial sensitivity about who was in control of the march. Malcolm X held press conferences in the lobby of the Capital Hilton, telling any reporter who would listen that the March on Washington had become the “Farce on Washington,” with black leaders kowtowing to white interests. “Talk about ‘integrated!’ It was like salt and pepper,” he said afterward.
But Randolph and Rustin never turned over control, Horowitz says — not to the White House, not to the churches, not to labor leaders.
“They demonstrated that black folks could put on a march this big and have it be nonviolent,” she remembers. It was an attitude of “we’re going to show them we can do this. The racial diversity, the integration, sort of came as a secondary factor.”
On the day of the march, cameras caught James Baldwin gripping and grinning with Marlon Brando. March organizers had asked Harry Belafonte to persuade the biggest stars in Hollywood to fly to Washington. Now Brando was there, with Charlton Heston standing nearby.
All around them were symbols of white privilege, historian Taylor Branch wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning King trilogy, describing everything from the national monuments that provided the backdrop to the journalists tracking the Hollywood A-listers. Folk music stars Joan Baez and Bob Dylan serenaded the crowd alongside gospel stalwart Mahalia Jackson. A handful of supportive congressmen came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Cox, the SNCC activist, says the celebrity participants, as well as the political and religious leaders, were cultural “legitimizers.”
Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, says they allowed the “march to claim its American-ness as well as its black American-ness. Here were people who didn’t visibly have a stake in this fight suddenly saying, ‘This is our fight as well.’ ”
Other minorities made their presence known. One sign read, “Puerto Ricans and Negroes Together. Freedom!”
As black marchers descended on the District in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, they were met by busloads, planeloads and railroad-car-loads of whites. Among them were working-class auto machinists and other union members, young university intellectuals, elderly leftists, the Hollywood elite, socially conscious Catholics, Jews and Protestants, and the stray, curious government worker who wandered onto the Mall to check out the scene.
Diana Zentay remembers walking from her Georgetown apartment to the Mall with her roommate. The two young white women had recently graduated from college. It was the first civil rights action Zentay had participated in and she was afraid, amid the media-stoked concerns about riots.
“We did not know whether we were going to make it back alive,” Zentay recalls. “There was fear. Who knows what would happen, but I said ‘Do we believe in this or not?’ ”
They walked on.
Jonathan Prinz — whose father, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, was one of the four white leaders of the march and on the program that day — sat in a chair on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He heard in the words of his German immigrant father a perspective of Jewish history that related to the theme of the march.
“His general objective was to change the dynamic of American life and to remind people they couldn’t just sit back and watch this,” Prinz recalls. “You can’t be silent and onlookers. He had said the same thing in Nazi Germany.”
The sentiment was echoed by a Big 10 member, the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, sweating in his ministerial collar. “We have come late, but we have come,” Blake, a past president of the National Council of Churches, told the crowd on behalf of his white brethren.
Few would remember the words he and the other white leaders uttered. All oratory was surpassed by King’s more memorable remarks. But the presence of the white speakers on the rostrum and the white faces in the integrated crowd had another lasting effect.
“It showed us in one day what the whole United States could be,” Zentay says.
She never became an activist, but just as the March on Washington changed the nation, it changed the arc of her career. In 1964, she joined a Commerce Department agency that ensured that public facilities around the country were integrating.