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The March on Washington

For many Americans, the calls for racial equality and a more just society emanating from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, deeply affected their views of racial segregation and intolerance in the nation.  Since the occasion of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, much has been written and discussed about the moment, its impact on society, politics and culture and particularly the profound effects of Martin Luther King’s iconic speech on the hearts and minds of America and the world.  Several interviewees from the Civil Rights History Project discuss their memories of this momentous event in American history.

Sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner grew up in Mississippi and became civil rights activists as teenagers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a student at Jackson State University, Dorie was expelled for participating in a civil rights demonstration. She then went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “Snick”), a group founded in 1960 by college students who challenged segregation through sit-ins at restaurant counters, protest marches and other forms of non-violent direct action.  Dorie discusses the physical harm and brutality that front-line activists endured during the summer of 1963 – jailing, beatings and even murder – leading up to the march in August.  Joyce Ladner describes her shock and sorrow at hearing about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a friend since childhood, and her subsequent decision to move to New York to work with her sister and others to plan the march. Joyce worked as a fundraiser with Bayard Rustin, Rachelle Horowitz and Eleanor Holmes (now Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton) at the March headquarters in Harlem, while Dorie helped fundraise for members of SNCC to attend the march. The two sisters lived with Horowitz and Holmes for the summer. Joyce remembers long hours, hard work and “Bobby” Dylan hanging out in their apartment and playing guitar late into the night when the residents only wanted to go to sleep.

The Ladners’ views of the March, like those of other activists, offer an interesting study in contrast to popular memories of the event. The latter overwhelmingly tend to dwell on the peaceful harmonious crowd of people joined together in common purpose with the dominant memory being King’s majestic speech.  Both Joyce and Dorie attended the March, and are quick to note that their day started off with a protest at the Justice Department over the case of colleagues in Americus, Ga., who had been jailed, weeks earlier, on false charges of sedition. The charges against SNCC’s Don Harris, John Perdew and Ralph Allen, and Congress of Racial Equality activist Zev Aelony carried a maximum sentence of death.  SNCC chairman John Lewis’s speech later that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial criticized the Kennedy administration’s refusal to intervene in this and other deadly assaults on civil rights workers and community members in the South, which caused considerable difficulties.  Joyce recalls the enormous numbers of marchers and also the presence of several notable figures on the stage such as Marlon Brando and Lena Horne. Joyce goes on to talk about Lena Horne declining to be interviewed by the press and insisting instead that the young activists go on camera. As a result of Horne’s insistence, Joyce was interviewed by NBC News, which made her mother proud to see her daughter on television. The Ladners contrast those memories with the shock and horror of returning to the South after the end of the March and attending the funeral of the four girls who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, just a few weeks later.

Courtland Cox was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he helped found the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) to protest segregation in the D.C. area. Members of NAG soon joined with other student groups across the nation to found SNCC. Cox was the SNCC representative to the March on Washington’s steering committee.  John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC and now Congressman from Georgia, was slated to deliver a speech at the March and Cox notes that he circulated a draft of Lewis’ speech beforehand. The speech was an impassioned delivery in which Lewis directly confronted the Kennedy administration for its lack of commitment to enforcing civil rights law and particularly Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department for its refusal to pursue and prosecute racist assaults on activists and black Southerners. The original speech, written by a committee of SNCC activists, included the rhetorical question, “I want to know, which side is the federal government on?” Another dramatic line in the speech was this: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

Cox in his telling of the story, recounts the reaction of Patrick O’Boyle, archbishop of Washington and a Kennedy administration supporter and speaker that day, along with others in the coalition of unions and religious and civic leaders. These speakers threatened to withdraw from the march unless criticism of the administration was removed from the speech. Cox talks about SNCC’s initial resistance to doing so and subsequently being persuaded by A. Philip Randolph to make changes to the speech for the sake of March unity.  But the episode still rankles SNCC members today as he and Joyce Ladner attest in their interviews. Both versions of Congressman Lewis’s speech are available to researchers in the James Forman papers held in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Gloria Hayes Richardson was a SNCC activist in Cambridge, Maryland. She remembers being asked to speak at the march but only on the condition that she wear a dress. In the end, she was not allowed to speak, nor were any women allowed to make a significant speech. In hindsight, she says, “it seemed to me it was turning into a big party, when a lot of us were out in the streets, you know, very threatened, when you’re going to have all this music and – and a picnic.”

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