For Congressman John Lewis, the March on Washington 50 years ago this month was an opportunity of a lifetime. Then a 23-year-old civil rights organizer from Alabama, Lewis was the youngest of six leaders invited to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and bear witness to Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was an “unbelievable year” in the civil rights movement, Lewis recalled recently: Scores of protesters were arrested and jailed throughout the South. Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used snarling dogs and fire hoses on women and children during peaceful protests. And lawmakers and President John F. Kennedy were slow-walking a major piece of civil rights legislation through Congress.
“People were afraid of losing their jobs, being run off their land, being beat or even killed for trying to register to vote,” Lewis, now 73 and a veteran Democratic House member from Georgia, recalled recently. “How did a society, committed to liberty and justice, allow the idea to take hold that the differences between us have some bearing on the value of human life?”
Lewis added, “We had to act. We had to do something.”
What he and other civil rights leaders accomplished on August 28, 1963 helped change history. The unprecedented turnout of peaceful demonstrators, both black and white, defied predictions of violence or even rioting, and increased pressure on the White House and Congress to pass a civil rights bill.
King’s speech also provided a towering exhortation to the nation to set aside prejudice and find common ground: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
On Saturday, tens of thousands of civil rights activists, political and labor leaders, community activists and ordinary citizens will swarm the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. The event has been billed by organizers as a “National Action to Reclaim the Dream.” President Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and be joined by two other former Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
GORED BY THE GREAT RECESSION
By most measures, black Americans have made substantial advances in civil liberties, education, job opportunities and earning power over the past half century.
Yet the Great Recession was particularly hard on African-American households, which saw their median income decline by 10.9 percent, to $33,519, since the start of the economic recovery four years ago. The nation as a whole incurred only a 4.4 percent decline, to $52,098, when adjusted for inflation.
And unemployment among blacks was 12.6 percent in July, compared to a national average of 7.4 percent. Joblessness among black teens, meanwhile, is an astounding 41.6 percent.
At the same time, the Supreme Court recently struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; it may be more difficult for blacks to vote in Texas and other southern and southwestern states, even though the rate of black voter turnout surpassed that of whites in the 2012 election. The acquittal of George Zimmerman last month in the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida also renewed debate about whether there is a double standard of justice for blacks and whites.
Lewis said that when he looks back on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as it was billed, “I see it as one of this nation’s finest hours.”
“The American people pushed and pulled, they struggled, suffered, and some even died, to demonstrate their desire to see a more fair, more just society,” he said.
THE LASTING ECHO OF A LONG MARCH
The morning of the march, Lewis was part of a delegation of prominent civil rights activists who were invited to meet with congressional leaders at the Capitol before making their way towards the Lincoln Memorial.
“We started walking down Constitution Avenue,” he said in a recent interview with NPR’s “Here & Now” program in Boston.
“We saw hundreds and thousands of people already marching. Now we were supposed to be their leaders. It was almost like saying, ‘There go my people, let me catch up with them.’”
One of those drawn to the Mall was Maxine H. Jackson, a 31-year-old government worker. For her, the march was less a rendezvous with destiny than simply a chance to spend time with friends on a warm summer day and catch a glimpse of the much-heralded King.
“I wanted to see the man,” Jackson, now 81, said. “I would have to be honest and say that, at the time, I did not realize the real importance of it – something that would have made me stop and try to take in as much as I could . . . It was a time to hang out with my friends.”
Through the prism of history, the 250,000 people who converged on Washington half a century ago witnessed a pivotal moment. The march was held just three months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the one-time “Master of the Senate,” succeeded Kennedy and pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The march marked the dawning of a tumultuous era of anti-war and civil rights protests, the murder of King in Memphis, and the ensuing urban riots. Progress in breaking down barriers for African-Americans was often slow in coming.
LARGEST MASS DEMONSTRATION EVER
The march reportedly was the largest mass demonstration in the country until then. Many Washingtonians stayed away from work and the Mall that day, fearing violence, even though 6,000 police were deployed that day and 15,000 federal troops were stationed around the city in case trouble broke out. Police even rigged the sound system so they could pull the plug if necessary.
The demonstrations were the epitome of moderation and dignity. That was in keeping with King’s insistence on non-violent protests of civil rights and employment injustices. Blacks and whites – many in coats and ties – locked arms and marched together towards the Mall.
Some were prominent figures in the civil rights and labor movement and the entertainment world. Many in the crowd craned their necks to see Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, and Joan Baez. But mostly these were ordinary people drawn to an extraordinary event.
The afternoon had been long, and it was left to King, a Baptist minister, “to lift his speech from the ordinary to the historic, from the mundane to the sacred,” as Jon Meacham wrote in Time magazine this week. Yet with the TV networks broadcasting live and Kennedy watching from the White House, King was struggling with a turgid speech written by advisers.
He abruptly scrapped his prepared remarks and delivered a speech for the ages after Mahalia Jackson, the popular gospel singer, spoke up and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”
John Lewis stood near King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – an enormous honor for the new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He recalled that A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, introduced him and the other speakers. And when it came time for Lewis to speak, this is what he recalls seeing:
“Hundreds of thousands of young people — students and volunteers, black and white — up in the trees, trying to get a better view,” Lewis told “Here & Now.” In his speech, Lewis voiced his misgivings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was still pending in Congress – because he thought there wasn’t enough in it to protect people from violence in the South.
“We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” Lewis told the crowd. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?”
(Ironically, Lewis was severely beaten by Alabama state troopers after leading a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965 – the incident came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”)
In the days leading up to the march and King’s speech, Maxine Jackson recalled the buzz in Washington’s black community. Jackson, who had graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh before landing a federal government job said her grandfather and uncle were both Baptist ministers, which added to her excitement in seeing King–the most famous Baptist minister of the day. What’s more, there was the lure of the other celebrities taking part.
Jackson says the march had a lasting impact on her life–helping to renew her religious faith and devotion to civic activities through her life-long membership in Delta Sigma Theta, a prominent black sorority. But she has mixed feelings about how far blacks have come economically since the historic march. “There are a lot of jobs that are open today that were not available [to blacks] then, but there are still a whole lot of problems that people still have,” she said.