Aide to Bayard Rustin (later a labor union official)
A. Philip Randolph
[president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters] had tried to put on a march in 1941 to protest discrimination in the armed forces and for a fair employment policy commission. He called off that march when FDR issued an executive order [prohibiting discrimination in the national defense industry]. But Randolph always believed that you had to move the civil rights struggle to Washington, to the center of power. In January 1963, Bayard Rustin sent a memo to A. Philip Randolph in essence saying the time is now to really conceive of a big march. Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as ’63 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.
“We’re going to walk together. We’re going to stand together. We’re going to sing together. We’re going to stay together.”
—The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Chairman of SNCC (later a 13-term congressman from Georgia)
A. Philip Randolph had this idea in the back of his mind for many years. When he had his chance to make another demand for a March on Washington, he told President Kennedy in a meeting at the White House in June 1963 that we were going to march on Washington. It was the so-called “Big Six,” Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr. and myself. Out of the blue Mr. Randolph spoke up. He was the dean of black leadership, the spokesperson. He said “Mr. President, the black masses are restless and we are going to march on Washington.” President Kennedy didn’t like the idea, hearing people talk about a march on Washington. He said, “If you bring all these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder and we will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress?” Mr. Randolph responded, “Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest.”
“The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life.
When we leave, it will be to carry on the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers, until total freedom is ours.”
—A. Philip Randolph
Activist and entertainer
We had to seize this opportunity and make our voices heard. Make those who are comfortable with our oppression—make them uncomfortable—Dr. King said that was the purpose of this mission.
Aide to King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (later a diplomat and human rights activist)
Dr. Randolph’s march basically was an attempt to transform a black Southern civil rights movement into a national movement for human rights, for jobs and freedom. And anti-segregation. So it had a much broader base— the plan was to include not only SCLC but all of the civil rights organizations, the trade union movement, the universities, the churches—we had a big contingent from Hollywood.
SNCC activist (later a sociologist)
At that point, the police all over Mississippi had cracked down so hard on us that it was more and more difficult to raise bond money, to organize without harassment from the local cops and the racists. I thought a large march would demonstrate that we had support outside our small group.
As we started planning the march, we started getting letters from our dear friends in the Senate of the United States, people who were advocates of civil rights. Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, Phil Hart of Michigan, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. The letters began either “Dear Mr. Randolph” or “Dear Bayard: We think that it’s very important to pass the civil rights bill and we believe very strongly in what you are doing, but have you considered the difficulty of bringing in 100,000 people in Washington? Where will they use the bathrooms? Where will they get water?” Every letter was identical. Bayard began to refer to them as “latrine letters,” and we put latrine letters on the side. They were inspirational in one way, in that Bayard arranged to rent scores of portable johns. We found out later that Senator Paul Douglas’ son, John Douglas, was working in the Justice Department. He and a guy named John Reilly were writing these letters and giving them to the senators to send to us. Before robo-type, there were these letters.
To mobilize the cultural force behind the cause—Dr. King saw that as hugely strategic. We use celebrity to the advantage of everything. Why not to the advantage of those who need to be liberated? My job was to convince the icons in the arts that they needed to have a presence in Washington on that day. Those that wanted to sit on the platform could do that, but we should be in among the citizens—the ordinary citizens—of the day. Somebody should just turn around and there was Paul Newman. Or turn around and there was Burt Lancaster.
I went first to one of my closest friends, Marlon Brando, and asked if he would be willing to chair the leading delegation from California. And he said yes. Not only enthusiastically but committed himself to really working and calling friends.
“I’m speaking at the moment with Mr. Percy Lee Atkins of Clarksdale, Mississippi: ‘I came because we want our freedom. What’s it going to take to have our freedom?’”
—Radio reporter Al Hulsen
Widow of Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (later a corporate executive)
We were there [in Washington] two days prior. We flew up [from Atlanta]. They expected us to be violent and for Washington to be torn up. But everybody had been told to remain nonviolent, just as we had been throughout the movement.
I started working on my speech several days before the March on Washington. We tried to come up with a speech that would represent the young people: the foot soldiers, people on the front lines. Some people call us the “shock troops” into the delta of Mississippi, into Alabama, southwest Georgia, eastern Arkansas, the people who had been arrested, jailed and beaten. Not only our own staffers but also the people that we were working with. They needed someone to speak for them.
The night before the march, Bayard Rustin put a note under my door and said, “John, you should come downstairs. There’s some discussion about your speech, some people have a problem with your speech.”
The archbishop [of Washington, D.C.] had threatened not to give the invocation if I kept some words and phrases in the speech.
In the original speech I said something like “In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s proposed civil rights bill. It was too little, too late. It did not protect old women and young children in nonviolent protests run down by policemen on horseback and police dogs.”
Much farther down I said something like “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day will come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way General Sherman did, nonviolently.” They said, “Oh no, you can’t say that; it’s too inflammatory.” I think that was the concern of the people in the Kennedy administration. We didn’t delete that portion of the speech. We did not until we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial.
“At 7 o’clock, the first ten people were here. They brought their own folding chairs and are to my left down near the Reflecting Pool. The Reflecting Pool early this morning is very calm and so gives a nice reflection of the Washington Monument. There are apparently fish or some sort of fly in the Reflecting Pool because every few minutes you see little wavelets in the middle.”
—Radio reporter David Eckelston
"All sorts of dress is evident, from the Ivy League suit to overalls and straw hats and even some Texas ten-gallon hats. Quite a few people are carrying knapsacks, blankets and so on, apparently anticipating a not too comfortable trip home tonight."
—Radio reporter Al Hulsen
SNCC activist (later civil servant and businessman)
Bayard and I left together. It was real early, maybe 6 or 7 in the morning. We went out to the Mall and there was literally no one there. Nobody there. Bayard looks at me and says, “You think anybody is coming to this?” and just as he says that, a group of young people from an NAACP chapter came over the horizon. From that time, the flow was steady. We found out that we couldn’t see anyone there because so many people were in buses, in trains and, particularly, on the roads, that the roads were clogged. Once the flow started, it was just volumes of people coming.
Civil rights activist (later a psychotherapist )
I could hardly sleep the night before the march. I got there early. Maybe 10:30 in the morning, people were milling around. There were maybe 20,000 folks out there. It was August; I forgot to wear a hat. I was a little concerned about getting burned up. I went and got a Coke. When I got back, people just poured in from all directions. If you were facing the podium, I was on the right-hand side. People were greeting each other; I got chills, I got choked up. People were hugging and shaking hands and asking “Where are you from?”
"One woman from San Diego, California, showed us her plane ticket. She said her grandfather sold slaves and she was here ‘to help wipe out evil.' "
—Radio reporter Arnold Shaw
I was in law school, I was in Mississippi in the delta working on the predecessor for the workshops that were to take place a year later in the Freedom Summer. I got a call from one of my friends in New York who said, “You need to be here, Eleanor, because we are developing the March on Washington.” So I spent part of the summer in New York, working on this truly fledgling March on Washington. Bayard Rustin organized it out of a brownstone in Harlem; that was our office. When I look back now, I am all the more impressed with the genius of Bayard Rustin. I do not believe that there was another person involved with the movement who could have organized that march—the quintessential organizer and strategist. Bayard Rustin was maybe the only openly gay man I knew. That was simply “not respectable,” so he was attacked by Strom Thurmond and the Southern Democrats, who sought to get at the march by attacking Rustin. To the credit of the civil rights leadership, they closed in around Rustin.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
SNCC activist (later a 12-term D.C. delegate to Congress)
I thought it was a great idea, but within the organization, SNCC, it was thought to be a distraction from our main work, organizing people in the rural South. But John [Lewis] had committed us to it, and we would go with our leadership and we did.
Communications director, SNCC (later a University of Virginia historian)
A map for the day of the
march outlined the parade route and areas where participants could find
restrooms, first aid and telephones. (Courtesy of National Museum of American History.)
The day before the March, my sister and Bobby Dylan, who was her good friend, went to a fund-raiser that night. She met Sidney Poitier; he was very, very involved with SNCC, as was Harry Belafonte. The next morning, we picketed the Justice Department because three of our SNCC workers were in jail in Americus, Georgia, for sedition, “overthrowing the government.” If you can imagine, people who were 18, 19, 20 years old, close friends, who were arrested for overthrowing the government, the state? They had not been able to get bond. We were terrified that they would in fact be charged and sent up for a long time. So we picketed in an effort to draw attention to their plight.
It was about 5:30 in the morning, it’s gray, it’s muggy, people are setting up. There’s nobody there for the march except some reporters and they start annoying Bayard and pestering him: “Where are the people, where are the people?” Bayard very elegantly took a piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it. Took out a pocket watch that he used, looked at both and said, “It’s all coming according to schedule,” and he put it away. The reporters went away and I asked, “What were you looking at?” He said, “A blank piece of paper.” Sure enough, eventually, about 8:30 or 9, the trains were pulling in and people were coming up singing and the buses came. There’s always that moment of “We know the buses are chartered, but will they really come?”
Radio transcript excerpts (in blue) courtesy of WGBH Media Library and Archives