Fifty years ago today, I stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and at the feet of the man who many believe should be occupying the space within next to the Great Emancipator himself: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was about to deliver his seminal “I have a dream” speech. And I was there.
I came to Washington as a young newsman with the Harvard College radio station, WHRB, to prepare a documentary on a landmark moment (it was clear even then that the March on Washington would be just that) in the American civil rights movement and in the flow of American history itself. The origins of the March date back to 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, president of both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the AFL-CIO, had organized an earlier such march that persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This effectively ended hiring discrimination in America’s defense industries at the height of World War II. The 1963 march — organized by alumni of the 1957 effort to desegregate the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, including Bayard Rustin from New York, Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Montgomery and Dr. King — had an even broader agenda. Timed to mark the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln, the organizers of this march hoped to bring an end to discrimination (legislated segregation in particular) across the United States, especially in the South
The day before the march itself, I made my way to the Capitol. My plan: to interview the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the venerable John W. McCormack, who had served in the House since 1928. A fervent New Deal liberal, he attached himself to the powerful Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn who, when he became Speaker, named McCormick House Majority Leader. For the next 21 years, Rayburn and McCormick ruled the House with iron fists. In 1962, with fellow Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kennedy in the White House, McCormick became the 53rd Speaker. So if I were to get some sense of what impact this March on Washington might have on Congress, which would legislate a more liberalized civil rights regime — and the executive who would enforce these laws — I needed to pay a visit to McCormick. I was ushered into his office mid-morning. McCormick had placed his massive mahogany desk at the end opposite the door; I had to walk the entire length of the room (it seemed a football-field’s worth of distance to me, at the time) to reach him. I sat down across from him and put my tape recorder on the edge of his desk. “Well, are you going to turn on that thing,” he snapped. I smiled wanly and did so. Yes, he told me, he was watching the March with great interest. He was concerned that it come off safely and calmly, especially if its leaders were to get what they had come for — namely, an understanding in Congress that a national civil rights law was necessary and proper.
My next stop was the Senate Radio Press Gallery. I’d been promised a very brief interview with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. While I was hanging around the Gallery, in strolled Senator Strom Thurmond, a Congressional veteran, a strong voice for anti-integrationists and a general opponent of the civil rights movement. I approached him. He looked down at me from his towering height. “Where ya from, boy?” he smiled. I told him: Harvard College radio. “A Harvard boy, eh?” he boomed. “Tell you what,” he continued, “you pump iron?” I demurred. “Well, I’ll challenge you. If you can lift more weight than I can, then I’ll give you your interview.” We retired to his office where there was laid out an entire set of weights. He picked a massive dumbbell and promptly swung it effortlessly over his head. I tried: couldn’t budge the thing. Thurmond, despite my failing his challenge, clearly wanted to talk, and he let me know what he thought of this march and its leadership in vitriolic terms. Yet he struck a note of relative moderation: a few weeks earlier, on the floor of the Senate, he had flailed Bayard Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual,” and had his entire California arrest file entered in the Congressional record.
Vitriol from Thurmond notwithstanding, the march was going to be massive. Through the night beginning August 27 and into the early morning hours the next day, more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars converged on Washington. All regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses were also filled to capacity. The organizers chose a strategic moment. Congress would be in session—Congressmen would be able to experience, first-hand the power and the emotions of the assembled multitude. Indeed, some 450 members of Congress were among the more than 200,000 who converged on the Lincoln Memorial, filling the grounds to capacity, spilling down the Mall on both sides of the Reflecting Pool, darkening the slopes up to the base of the Washington Monument.
The assembled multitude began spreading out before the Lincoln Memorial shortly after 7 AM. I was unable to persuade the parade organizers to award me the coveted press credentials that would have won me a spot inside the press tent. Which was how I wound up in an even more strategic position — next to a loudspeaker just below the towering speakers’ platform fronting the Lincoln Memorial.
So I was in prime place to hear Joan Baez launch the official proceedings with her signature ballad, We Shall Overcome: “Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” Peter, Paul and Mary followed, asking, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” Odetta Holmes belted out her call to action: “If they ask you who you are, tell them you’re a child of God.” There followed a parade of leaders of social, political, trade union and civil rights organizations: Walter P. Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers; A. Philip Randolph; the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, vice chairman of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches; Matthew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; Whitney Young. Only one of the march’s organizers, James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality, was unable to speak in person. He was jailed in Louisiana, arrested at a civil rights rally. Most made it quite plain that the Kennedy civil rights bill, then stuttering its way through Congressional committees, did not go far enough — and this milquetoast version was nonetheless facing major hurdles.
And then we came to that rendezvous with history — the moment reserved for a man that The New York Times’s E.W. Kenworthy described as the one “who had suffered perhaps most of all — who ignited the crowd with words that might have been written by the sad, brooding man enshrined within”the Memorial itself. My tape recorder picked up every word spoken by Dr. King. But I leave it to Kenworthy to note where the crowd’s punctuation cut in:
As he rose, a great roar welled up from the crowd. When he started to speak, a hush fell.
“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” he said.
“It is a dream chiefly rooted in the American dream,” he went on.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream…” The vast throng listening intently to him roared.
“…that one day in the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream…” The crowd roared.
“…that one day even the State of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream…” The crowd roared.
“…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream…” The crowd roared.
“…that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
As Dr. King concluded with a quotation from a Negro hymn—“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty”—the crowd recognizing that he was finishing, roared once again and waved their signs and pennants.
We who were listening understood that we had just experienced a turning point in history. We embraced those next to us, complete strangers. Gone was the pain in my right shoulder from holding up my microphone to the public address system, the sweat streaming down my face in the muggy Potomac summer heat, the misery of my shirt sticking to my body.
By late afternoon it was over. Now, a half century removed from this epiphanal moment, it is sad to say that we have had few leaders since of the caliber of King, few committed and visionary presidents like Kennedy or Johnson. 2013 saw Congress and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court bent on rolling back some of the gains made by the tremendous sacrifice and endless labor of these men and women — beginning with important elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all hard won by the hundreds of thousands who marched on Washington and the smaller armies that continued the fight in the halls of Congress. Instead of heeding the lessons of history, it seems increasingly that we’ll be compelled to live with the consequences of that heedlessness.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. This and a host of other anecdotes will be included in his memoirs, now under preparation. Twitter: @DavidAndelman