August 28, 2023, was the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There are still a few of us left who were young adults or older teens in attendance that glorious day. Too many are gone, taken by the inevitable results of biology. But some remain fully conscious of the power, magnitude, and profound historical significance of the greatest demonstration for human dignity in American history. This event that drew 250,000 people of all ages and races was a life-changing day.
The March was a touchstone in my life. Everyone I’ve ever met who was there has told me exactly the same thing. When I replay some of the speeches and the music, so easily available now on the internet, I feel the emotions strongly. I think, above all, that it makes me reflect on how the March catalyzed for me a life of active anti-racist and other political activism that has defined so much of my adult life.
When I was there for the entire event, I was caught up in the emotion of the moment, like all the other participants. I couldn’t have imagined the future trajectory of my life. I knew that I would continue in the civil rights movement. I had already been in Atlanta with SNCC, involved in restaurant desegregation efforts, along with some iconic figures including Julian Bond, John Lewis, Jim Foreman, Dick Gregory, and countless Black students and older people who put their bodies on the line for basic human rights and freedom.
I also couldn’t have imagined that following Dr. King’s eloquent exhortation that late afternoon to continue the struggle, that I would “see action” in Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona, and California within the year, and experience some minor injuries from police assaults along the way. Likewise, I couldn’t foresee being arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced in a California courtroom to three years of probation, with the (odious or at least bizarre) choice of law school or jail. I chose the former, but it wasn’t as easy as it might appear. All of this occurred less than a year after the March.
Above all, I really had little idea that I would wind up teaching in various social science and humanities departments at Berkeley and mostly at UCLA since 1968, with over 40,000 students. Throughout that time, only a few years after the March, I have infused both my teaching and my writing with a spirit of social criticism and resistance. I know also that many people who were March “veterans” had long careers and work lives that were dedicated to social justice in whatever fields they pursued. Some, like me, are still at it.
When I reflect about that massive historic event of 1963, I think initially of the music. A few days ago, I listened to some of the songs at the March, easily found now on the internet. It filled me with emotion. The list of performers that August day was nothing short of amazing: Mahalia Jackson; The Freedom Singers; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan; Joan; Baez; Odetta; Marian Anderson; and others. Who could forget them on stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial?
A few captured and enveloped me more, perhaps, than any other songs in my lifetime, feelings I just recaptured: Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Blowin’ in The Wind,” the finest rendition of Dylan’s classic; Odetta’s unforgettable “O Freedom”; Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Movement,” with her golden voice; and, for me more than any other musical performance that day, Marian Anderson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
I knew Marian Anderson’s history: her unbelievable voice, the voice that Arturo Toscanini said that came once in a hundred years. Mostly I knew about her rejection from the DAR’s Constitution Hall in 1939 on racist grounds and her historic concert in the same Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. I was struck by that irony as I listened raptly to her rendition of the famous spiritual in 1963. I have used this and so many of the other March songs in various of my classes and other presentations throughout my long career. Although it’s usually not my language, I can say it here: what a blessing.
I have attended hundreds of demonstrations and protests over the years and have spoken at many. Music has played a powerful role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and beyond, as well as in other political movements. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of participants and helps to sustain the momentum and energy of those movements. It’s the emotional and creative glue of social protest.
I also vividly recall the speeches during that glorious day in 1963, and not only the majestic final oration by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Following our trek to the Lincoln Memorial, the first speaker was A. Philip Randolph, whose powerful opening set the tone for the rest of the day. Randolph, the longtime leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was very well known to thousands of marchers. As I explain regularly, he was a giant but now largely forgotten figure in both labor and civil rights history. I regularly teach about his threatened March on Washington in 1941 and do my best to bring him back into the historical record. For me as a young activist, it was a thrill to see him in person––another unforgettable moment.
And there were so many others, with amazing orations and stunning announcements. One of the most dramatic and poignant moments, for me and I think for the majority in the crowd, occurred when NAACP Director Roy Wilkins announced the death in Ghana of the iconic Black scholar and activist W.E. B. Du Bois the previous day. I “grew up” with Du Bois, especially with his “The Souls of Black Folk.” He has been a staple of my teaching for fifty years.
The speakers continued. I listened to all of them, but not always with close attention. I can even now recall the most memorable ones for me. Bayard Rustin was a striking presence and many of us in the crowd knew about his brilliant organizing for the March. I had tremendous respect for Rustin and I routinely talk about his stellar contributions in my classes. I don’t think I knew that he was gay at the time, but I address that indelible feature of his life in all my presentations.
I also remember the speech by Daisy Bates. Coming from a very political family, I had watched her courageous actions during the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957 when the racist Governor Orval Faubus tried to block the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School. This whole drama kept me entranced, further increasing my desire to lead an activist life.
I knew that Daisy Bates would speak at the March. I didn’t realize at the time that she was the only woman speaker, and I was unaware of the misogyny of the organizers in overlooking the women of the civil rights movement. My understanding changed soon afterwards and I fought constantly for gender inclusion in the movement and in every aspect of my professional life. It’s also a staple of my teaching.
A personal highlight was the speech of John Lewis. I knew that he would deliver the most militant speech, even though, under intense pressure, he toned it down. We young students from SNCC and similar groups wanted an aggressive speech, and we really got it from John Lewis, even in a slightly diluted form. I was privileged to know him throughout his magnificent life. He was a national treasure and he showed it that August 1963 day.
There is nothing more to say about Dr. King’s concluding “I Have a Dream Speech,” except that I heard it and felt exactly the same as just about everyone else. It was mesmerizing and it was an enormous privilege to be an eyewitness at perhaps the finest, most eloquent speech in American history. It was, truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It galvanized my desire to continue the struggle as a foot soldier in the movement. But over the years, in playing it many times to my students, I’ve emphasized that its content went far beyond its soaring final rhetoric. Even the dream itself, in full context, was not a phrase to be trivialized, as it has too often become. Closer attention to the entire speech reveals King’s tough and enduring critique of American racism, from economic deprivation to police brutality. In my teaching and writing, I’ve routinely emphasized that Martin Luther King was an authentic radical, heir to a long and proud tradition of American dissent.
The deeper questions that the March raise are its effects and significance. In some quarters, it’s fashionable, I think, to say it was merely a show, with little substance to emerge. I don’t think so. March organizers set the tone for a long tradition of mass protest. Subsequent large demonstrations throughout the country and the world have alerted people to a wide variety of problems that have needed attention, with some concrete results. During the Vietnam War, millions of protestors attended large demonstrations, galvanizing and reinforcing their opposition to this grotesque war. Most recently large pro-choice protests have helped voters pass freedom for reproductive rights laws and constitutional protection in several states.
In 1963 itself, the March helped force President John F. Kennedy to draft a stronger Civil Rights bill than he would have introduced had the March not occurred. It forced his hand. When I teach about the civil rights movement, I use this example to highlight Kennedy’s lukewarm support for civil rights. He was no shining savior. For many students, this is a powerful revelation, a rebuke to superficial media presentations of JFK as the young civil rights martyr.
That legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1963, later signed by President Lyndon Johnson, did make some differences. African Americans could eat in restaurants, see shows in theaters, take rooms in hotels and motels, drink from any water fountains, be employed in jobs other than in mere menial positions, and no longer be segregated on arbitrary grounds of skin color. This is not trivial. It’s a matter of basic human dignity.
Doubtless, there remains so much left to be done. I stress as much in my current teaching and writing. And I’ve taken regularly to the streets to pursue these goals, a further personal legacy of the March and the movement as a whole. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many other black people, of all ages, shows the horrific persistence of violent racism. Police brutality and murders are pervasive, now captured on personal phones and on police body cams. Black Lives Matter; that’s why we marched in massive numbers in 2020 and why it remains a powerful movement today. And as Kimberle Crenshaw argues in her incisive new book Say Her Name, Black women’s lives matter, and we are called upon to say the names of the Black women and girls whose lives were taken by police misconduct and illegality.
Gaps in wealth and power owing to race also remain tragically high. To proclaim that American racism is a thing of the past is laughable and dangerous. More insidious are the attempts to remove American racism from the history books, as is occurring in Florida and elsewhere. Banning (even criminalizing) critical race theory and erasing African American history is a prescription for massive public ignorance.
An entire catalog of the anti-racist work that must be done can and should be written. The March on Washington was only one milestone in a never-ending struggle for justice and dignity. As a participant now in the late autumn of my life, it served a powerful purpose in helping me to create the kind of existence that has made the most sense for myself in the fleeting time that I, and all of us, have on our troubled planet.
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