Press-Republican

August 25, 2013

The March on Washington: 50 years later

By KEN WIBECAN
Press-Republican

---- — Early Wednesday morning, Aug. 28, 1963, more than 2,000 chartered buses, 21 trains, several chartered airplanes and too many cars to count gathered in our nation’s capital.

We were there for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a massive protest that would draw the largest crowd yet seen in our nation’s capital.

Almost daily, newspaper headlines, radio and television news outlets reported from parts of the southern states how police officers forced dogs to maul children too young to vote and then knocked them down with powerful fire hoses.

It was what we hoped was the last gasp of a system of segregation that denied access to equality to millions of American citizens for no other reason than the color of their skin.

The South was not a happy place for people of color. Americans even witnessed the degrading spectacle of a state governor standing in the doorway of a high school to prevent young brown citizens from attending classes with their white counterparts.

These were sad days for America, and the March on Washington was intended to set things straight.

It was conceived by A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO.

The other leaders of the march were Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality; John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League; and Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP.

The reasons for the march varied in degree among the leadership. But there was general agreement that the people had gathered to protest the Kennedy administration’s perceived lack of support for civil rights.

In particular then, as now, there was a great disparity in the number of jobs available for African Americans when compared to those available for whites.

This was a serious march for serious reasons, and the participants were hoping that it would put enough pressure on our elected representatives to effect some measure of viable change.

SHARED DREAM

The morning sun hung low in the sky with a promise that the day would be warm and dry.

Movie actor Sterling Hayden was waiting for me on a bench at a District of Columbia subway station. I turned on the attaché case-sized tape recorder that I lugged around during the daylight hours and asked Hayden a few questions.

He answered with some of the “Great day” and “Proud to be here” type responses that I was to hear throughout the day. I was new at this interview stuff and hadn’t yet learned to ask questions that elicit thoughtful responses.

I was there representing WBAI-FM in New York, one of two African American volunteers on their public-affairs staff. The other, Mort Perry, was covering the press feed. I was the roving reporter.

I said goodbye to Hayden and headed for the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Groups of marchers had already begun to gather as three armed guards surrounded me.

“What is that you’re carrying?” one asked, pointing to the shotgun microphone in my hand.

It had a long barrel and a trigger. When you pointed it at a distant speaker and pulled the trigger, it eliminated much of the crowd noises. And it did look like a gun, a fact that got me stopped several times that day.

Celebrities were gathered on the steps and sides of the Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by security.

Nearby, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were tuning their guitars. Harry Belafonte was sitting on a monument step conversing with Sammy Davis Jr., and Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were among the many familiar faces awaiting a turn to speak.

Fannie Lou Hamer — who added “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” to our lexicon — stood talking to friends.

Some of the organizers of the march huddled together in a small group, among them A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins and John Lewis. I tried but couldn’t get close to them.

It felt good to be in the midst of so many freedom-loving Americans. If my civil-rights-pioneer grandfather were alive, he would have been there, too.

Little did I know that I was attending a historical event that would be remembered 50 years later or that the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would become a national holiday.

But it was the 1960s, and demonstrations and speeches took place just about every weekend in New York City.

Those of us who believed in the magic of that decade grasped that enchanted word — Hope! — with clenched fists, knowing that our confidence would carry the day. Change was in the air.

MINGLING

I left the memorial steps to mingle with the marchers. They were of all colors, well-dressed and orderly, broad smiles brightening their faces, all glad to be there. Many carried signs.

Certainly there was nothing to justify D.C. officials closing all bars and liquor stores the day of the march, in an obvious slap in the faces of the marchers. They were there for business, not to drink and carouse, as some critics predicted.

“We are proud to be here,” many said.

“This ought to show them that we are serious,” said one man later in the day. He was soaking his tired feet in the reflecting pool.

Numerous loudspeakers scattered throughout the mall were designed to carry the words of the speakers, who, I was told, were urged to “keep it short.”

But the sounds of thousands of marchers made it difficult to hear their words. It was easier to hear Joan Baez lead the march’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” or Dylan perform his “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” set our hands to clapping.

What a beautiful sight. Even now, 50 long years later, when I summon up memories of that truly inspirational day, chills run up my spine.

If my memory holds true, King made his ageless “I Have A Dream” speech late in the afternoon, but I was a long way from the podium and, unfortunately, didn’t hear it until the following day.

The importance of the march was to be found not so much in the words of the speakers but in the almost mystical spirits of the participants. It was if we were all one big happy family that shook hands and embraced freely, our mutual humanity on display for all the world to witness.

TEA WITH MALCOLM X

As the festivities drew to a close and the buses that were chartered for the march began to load up for the journey home, I saw Malcolm X standing off to one side, accompanied by his Fruit of Islam bodyguards.

We were acquainted with him from Mort and me taping his New York City speeches. He had publicly panned the march, calling it the “Farce on Washington.” Needless to say, he had not been invited to speak.

I asked what he thought of the march.

“They told you when to come into town, they closed up all the liquor stores, they told you where to march, and they told you to get out of town before dark. You call that a march?” he replied in his typical sarcastic way.

He invited Mort and me to join him at the D.C. Mosque later that evening.

We got there in time for one of Malcolm’s sermons, after which we were ushered to a small table in the basement of the mosque, and they served tea. Soon Malcolm joined us, along with a New York writer whose name I forget.

Malcolm was in a good mood that night, and we spent quite awhile listening to him share his extensive knowledge of African American oppression.

All in all, it was a rewarding day for a budding journalist. I shared varying views of a historical event that continues to hold importance these 50 years later. 

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at kwibecan@gmail.com.