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Marching On Washington And Moving In The Movement



I can still remember the morning. We had spent the week circulating flyers and trying to anticipate what would happen. No one had ever even attempted a March on the scale of this one.


 


It had been a hot summer of protest. The civil rights struggle was in full throttle. In August 1963, I was a full time civil rights worker in Baltimore Maryland. I was on the staff of the Northern Student Movement (NSM), the northern counterpart to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC) Our organization was working in community based projects in 8 Northern cities, offering tutoring for disadvantaged students in ghetto schools and mounting marches and actions. Earlier in the summer, I was caught up in what became violent protests at the Glen Echo Amusement Park in the Suburbs. Many of us were arrested and attacked by rednecks. My name was in the paper as one of those victims.


 


At the sane time, I represented NSM on the Maryland State Committee for the March on Washington. We had been meeting all summer to plan/organize the mobilization, and to try to make sure that all the labor and student groups we had reached out to would come. Our own Baltimore Area Youth Opportunities Unlimited project filled five buses out of East Baltimore, one of the most depressed communities in the state.


 


Throughout the summer, we had heard about the cat and mouse game being played by the Kennedy Administration which welcomed the march publicly but tried to distance itself from it and even sabotage it. They tried to decide who should speak and who should not. The head of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, a mainstream moderate tried to suppress a speech by now Georgia Congressman John Lewis who intended to criticize the hypocritical policies of the Kennedy Boys who were trying to manage the civil rights revolution. John refused to be bowed. He went ahead despite tremendous pressure to moderate his militancy.


 


The media was not very enthusiastic. Columnists like Robert Novak red-baited SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. Many snide and disparaging comments appeared about March organizer Bayard Rustin who was known as a radical and gay to boot. The March’s Chairman was the veteran labor leader A Phillip Randolph who I met as student journalist for the Clinton News, my high school newspaper way back in l960 when the student sit ins inspired me to cross the line between journalism and activism. If you have ever been to Union Station in Washington, you can see a sculpture honoring the man who led the sleeping car porters, a vanishing breed of railway worker. It was he who insisted that the March call for JOBS and JUSTICE. He used to refer to Martin Luther King JAY R (Jr.) in style of deep voiced polished articulation. He was a man of great dignity who had led an earlier March that we forget now in l941 against Jim Crow in the US military.


 


As an organizer of the march, (albeit a lowly one) I was privy to the gossip and all the internal politics, to the compromises and organizational in- fighting. No one really knew how many people would turn out or that the “I have a Dream speech” would define the moment for decades to come.


 


As we drove to Washington, we could see that it would be big. Really big! Other marches would be bigger but this one at 250,00 was a first. The excitement was palpable as we sang freedom songs and passed a long line of busses from New York and the whole East Coast. We were pouring into the Capital like some unstoppable army of non-violent liberation.


 


The leaders all wore suits, others their Sunday best, but many of the Deep South field secretaries came in the blue denim garb of Southern sharecroppers, the uniform of the Southern movement. Union people wore white hats to signal their status as Marshals. If you have seen footage of the March, or the many pictures, you could see those proud black men and women surrounding King on the platform. (Google March On Washington and you enter a world of historical resources)


 


What you may not know is that it was NOT covered live. There were no satellite broadcasts, no CSPAN. The networks all shot film for what were then 15 minute newscasts. Two films were shot, one by the USIA which was shown worldwide as government propaganda to show all the civil rights progress in the USA. The other was owned by the King Family which has in recent years licensed it to big corporations.


 


I ended up with my cohort near the front. I had a clear line of vison and could see the whole show, including singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Marian Anderson. We cheered until we couldn’t cheer anymore. CORE leader James Farmer was in jail in Louisiana and couldn’t be there.


 


For student activists like me, John Lewis was our leader. Historian Howard Zinn who taught in Georgia in those days and authored the first history of SNNC wrote about his speech for the Nation in l963.


 


“Standing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, John Lewis turned his wrath, not at the easy target, the Dixiecrats, but against the Administration.”


 


“To many, the March had been presented as a gigantic lobby for the Administration’s Civil Rights Bill, but Lewis pointed quickly, unerringly, to the weaknesses in the bill. Furthermore, by sponsoring a new civil-rights bill, the Administration had skillfully turned attention to Congress, and deflected the erratic spotlight of the civil-rights movement from possibly focusing on inadequacies of the Executive.


 


“The straight, crass fact at which John Lewis was aiming is this: the national government, without any new legislation, has the power to protect Negro voters and demonstrators from policemen’s clubs, hoses and jails-and it has not used that power.”


 


Afterwards John Lewis would criticize the coverage for its focus on the King speech, saying “Too many commentators and reporters softened and trivialized the hard edges of pain and suffering that brought about this day in the first place, virtually ignoring the hard issues that needed to be addressed.”


 


John is the only surviving speaker who appeared on the rostrum that day, He spoke at a commemoration last week that I would have been at if I had been away. His view now:


 


“Forty years later, we see an economy that is not doing well. More and more people, young people and minorities, are not able to find work. There are still hundreds of thousands of people . . . who are trapped in a sea of poverty,” said Lewis, now a Georgia Democrat in the House of Representatives. He added: “The American people are too quiet. We’re too complacent. We need to make a little noise.”


 


It is hard to remember now of all the great reporting that was done that brought the “noise” of this struggle to White Americans. Many of the best journalists were Southerners like Claude Sitton of the New York Times who wrote colorfully about what it was like to confront segregation. One of his dispatches appears in a great two volume collection called Reporting Civil Rights. Here’s one story I remember:


 


“Sheriff Harasses Negroes at Voting Rally in Georgia.” The New York Times, July 27, 1962.


 


SASSER, Ga., July 26-”We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years,” said Sheriff Z. T. Mathews of Terrell County. Then he turned and glanced disapprovingly at the thirty-eight Negroes and two whites gathered in the Mount Olive Baptist Church here last night for a voter-registration rally.


 


“I tell you, cap’n, we’re a little fed up with this registration business,” he went on.


 


“As the 70-year-old peace officer spoke, his nephew and chief deputy, M. E. Mathews, swaggered back and forth fingering a hand-tooled black leather cartridge belt and a .38-caliber revolver. Another deputy, R. M. Dunaway, slapped a five-cell flashlight against his left palm again and again.


 


“The three officers took turns badgering the participants and warning of what “disturbed white citizens” might do if this and other rallies continued.”


 


It was events like that that drove us to speak truth to power, to march on the Nation;s Capital.


 


No one who was there will ever forget it. It was so new, so hopeful, so filled with righeousness. Linn Washington writes about a young Ed Bradley,now of 60 Minutes who was also there as a Bus captain. “DJ Georgie Woods, an avid Civil Rights Movement activist, asked Bradley to serve as a “bus captain” for one of the buses that Woods had chartered to take people to the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington.


 


For Ed Bradley, the “March was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. There’d never been a demonstration like that in our lifetime. It was a feeling that we’d done something special; we were a part of something special,” noted Bradley, who was studying to be an elementary school teacher at Cheyney State in 1963.”


 


The March and the Movement changed many of our lives. After the March ended, the leaders went to lobby the White House. Kennedy staged a photo op even as the FBI’s J Edger Hopver who had been bugging Dr. King has men out spying as best they could. Many of us feared the leaders would be co-opted.


 


After the March, I recommitted myself to the Movement and dropped out of Cornell. I moved to Harlem to work for NSM full time, and ended up editing the magazine Freedom North.


 


That night, I wandered over to a big DC hotel where many of the leaders were staying and celebrating the fact that the march was consumated so peacefully and successfully. I stayed in DC and actually ran into Malcolm X who was there but did not come to the March. The movement activists were debating the March’s impact.


 


Dr. King’s eloquence was still ringing in my ears although I knew that he deviated from his initial text and had actually given the speech before in the mass march in Detroit earlier in June. Like the March on Washington, it was the Auto Workers who made the march happen.


 


The next morning, in a torrential rain, the hard rain that Dylan said was gonna fall, I took the bus back to Bal’more wondering how we could ever top the great March on Washington.


 


None of this takes away from the magic of that moment and the fact that 40 years on, I am still thinking about those days and how they changed our world, at least in part.


 


These were the days of what we called THE Movement pronounced Mooov-ement. It was our community and our classroom, united by faith, often undermined by fear.


 


The short bus ride I took to Washington on that August morning was a much longer ride for those who came from the deep South, from what MLK Jr. called the hills and molehills of Alabama, Old Stone Mountain in Georgia or Lookout Mountain in Tennessee or from the bayous of Lousiana or the cotton fields of Mississippi. That March represented the strivings and the struggle of many generations who never thought they would ever see that day.


 


How amazing it is now to think how I, a son of a garment worker would be so welcomed into a world of ex-slaves, that I who came out of a Bronx housing project would be integrated-yes we all believed in that then– into a history century long struggle with deep roots in the earliest days of this country and another Continent before that. We won the fight against overt forced segregation but 40 years later far too many of live in separate nations, separate and unequal. Institutional racism still persists, in our media as well


 


Thinking back now, in another time when for many in our country this March would be memorialized with four words, “I have a Dream,” I realize how incredibly lucky I was to be a small cog on this wheel that was so much richer, so much deeper and so often powered by song.


 


I learned all the songs that kept our spirits awake and remember them still. Not just our anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” but “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Will Never Turn Back.” We had amazing freedom singers and spoke of our goal as achieving the “Beloved Community.” Non-violence was our creed, democracy and human rights our goal.


 


I especially remember the voice of Bernice Johnson Reagon from Albany Georgia singing “Over My Head, I see Freedom in the air.” She could visualize it then and has done so much over years with groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock to convey the infectious spirit of those times that can’t be reduced to sound bites or slogans. She speaks of this music as “the reservoir from which blacks draw the songs they use in political and social struggle.” If you haven’t heard those songs or sang along, do so before you go. And clap when you do. They were the media of the movement,


 


History is written by winners and so we can be pleased today to have many TV programs and series like “Eyes on the Prize” chronicling those civil rights years, but usually only in terms of black emancipation. But there were others there too who were part of the mighty stream. Mexican-Americans. Japanese Americans, gays and straights, Southern Whites and Northern kids like myself who were politicized and educated as we exercised what Dr King called, the right to fight for what is right.


 


I was lucky to be one of those fighters in my formative years, to be exposed to the culture of a people’s movement, to be exposed to and in a sense taught by great leaders and role models like King and Malcolm, who I was privileged to meet personally, but also by John Lewis and Bob Moses, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hammer, Stokley Carmihael. Danny Mitchell, Casey and Tom Hayden, Mary Varela, Frank Joyce, Eric Craven, Bob Knight, Granville Cherry, Jesse Gray, Bill Strickland and so many, many others.


 


That March on Washington was not just a political event, not just a day to mark and remember. It was for me and for so many others a personal milestone, a turning point of possibility, a part of the reason I am doing what I am today. It offered us an immersion in a life defining work that defined our lives and times. It made us what we are and history what it is.


 


It showed that movements from below can be more important than politics from above.


 


I never suffered the way many in our movement did or made the sacrifices that claimed lives and destroyed souls. I have no claim to, or desire for, recognition, I was just a foot soldier in the Movement Army, but I do feel I did my duty and served as an American of conscience who shared, for a brief moment in a glory that was bigger than us all.


 


I made a pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial in person twenty years ago for that anniversary and do so again this year but in spirit.


 


I am happy to report that my little light is still shining.


 


Danny Schechter was active in the civil rights and student movements from l960-66. He now makes, films, writes books and edits Mediachanel.org, a global media website. His latest book is “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover The War in Iraq.

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