As told to
Michael Grant, Barbara Leap, Pamela Mathieson, Marilyn Milloy, Niamh Rowe and Leslie Quander Wooldridge, AARP
It was an audacious plan: On Aug. 28, 1963, a coalition of civil rights, labor and student groups would stage a massive demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Marching together to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd would demand civil rights legislation, school desegregation and protections for workers.
Black Americans had been fighting legalized segregation in the South for decades, but in recent months their nonviolent protests — and opponents’ brutal reactions to them — had brought the issue to national attention.
The idea for the event came from longtime labor activist A. Philip Randolph, then 74. Bayard Rustin, then 51, a cofounder (along with Martin Luther King Jr.) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became its key organizer. And an army of volunteers got to work.
In the end, it was the largest such demonstration that had ever been held. The all-day event brought an estimated 250,000 marchers to D.C., to be inspired by a raft of performers — among them Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — and a slate of speakers. The formal program culminated in King’s epochal “I Have a Dream” speech, considered by many to be not only one of King’s finest moments but one of America’s.
Six decades later, we asked marchers to tell us their most striking memories of the event — and how its effects have rippled through to the present.
WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY
The stage is set for a march
In May 1963, news footage showed police in Birmingham, Alabama, turning fire hoses on young protesters and setting attack dogs on them. In June, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) field secretary Medgar Evers, who had helped to integrate the University of Mississippi, was assassinated by a white supremacist in Evers’ own driveway. In July, Randolph, King and other civil rights leaders formalized their plans for the march.
Courtland Cox, 82
COURTESY COURTLAND COX
Then: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff member
We organized the march in about 90 days. My responsibility was to help bring people who were engaged in the demonstrations in the South to the March on Washington. That meant contacting them and helping to arrange their transportation and a number of other things that would allow them to attend, because the march was about what they were involved in. We were especially focused on Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. I was a 22-year-old college student, and I had just come from working on a voter-registration project in the Mississippi Delta, where you could be killed for that work. So, organizing this march was not very stressful. It was exhilarating.
Norman Hill, 90
Now: Retired activist and labor leader
Then: National program director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
I was based in New York City, and I traveled to Northern, Midwestern and upper-Southern cities to get people to attend. In every city I went to, I’d visit leaders of groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, make a presentation and urge them to join together to enlist marchers and raise funds to cover travel to Washington. From every city I visited, people came to the march.
Joyce A. Ladner, 79
Now: Sociologist, author and civil rights activist
Then: College student and SNCC volunteer
The segregated Mississippi I grew up in was a place of murders, beatings, arrests, jailings, home burnings and lack of voting rights. I got started in activism young: When I was 15 and my sister Dorie was 16, we helped to organize an NAACP youth council in our city of Hattiesburg.
In college in Jackson, Mississippi, I volunteered as an SNCC field secretary. That’s how I learned of the planned march. Dorie and I had both been very close to Medgar Evers. We decided to march in his honor.
It was important to us to get members of the Mississippi Black community to Washington for the march, so they could see they had support outside of the Deep South. I got involved in fundraising, doing public speaking in New York and New Jersey to raise awareness and support.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, 86
Eleanor Holmens Norton
COURTESY THE OFFICE OF CONGRESSWOMAN ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON
Now: Congresswoman for the District of Columbia
Then: Law student and SNCC organizer
In the South, people had been arrested for pressing for equality. But state-by-state activities were not resulting in national change. Washington was the only place you could go if you wanted to get legislation to eradicate segregation throughout the country.
When I was at Yale Law School, I heard from Bayard Rustin that there would be a march. So, I went to New York City, to a brownstone where it was being organized. There I worked the phones. Because the march was unprecedented, the logistics were first of a kind: making sure people knew where to go, how to get buses. Calling organizations around the country to try to get people to go.
Bruce Hartford, 79
Now: Webmaster of Civil Rights Movement Archive
Then: Activist with CORE, based in Los Angeles
My parents had relocated from L.A. to Connecticut without me, and they knew convincing their 19-year-old son to leave his organizing work to spend a sleepy summer in New Haven might be difficult. I’d been fighting residential-housing segregation in the L.A. suburbs. But they managed to lure me east by saying, “You’d be able to attend the upcoming march in Washington, D.C.” So, I went.
Monte Wasch, 81
Then: College student and volunteer for the march organizing committee
I was in college in New York City, and I was part of a staff of students and adult organizers who had responsibility for the transportation of the marchers. We contacted all the bus companies in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as the airlines. The railroads added special trains for us.
When I met people in high school who were politically conscious, they were the people I wanted to hang out with. I recognized the similarities between antisemitism and the racism Blacks experienced. Racism, I think, generates from fear; then fear begets resentment, and resentment begets oppression.
AP PHOTO/ED WIDDIS
Heeding the call to march
Being involved in a civil rights protest came, at the time, with significant risks. Along with the potential for violence from law enforcement ordered to disperse demonstrators, there was the potential of being marked as an agitator by present or future employers. Still, as word spread about the upcoming event, Americans from all over the country pledged to march.
Edward “Ed” T. Flanagan Jr., 80
Now: Retired U.S. Air Force veteran and defense contractor
Then: College student
My parents didn’t want me to attend a march of any kind. They didn’t want me rocking the boat. I was 20 years old and attending Howard University. In the weeks leading up to the march, there were fears about violence breaking out there, so my parents were concerned about that too. And you must remember that some considered the civil rights protests to be part of a radical movement. Participating in a march could mean losing a job, housing or worse. But I wanted to be part of something that could change America. If it took numbers, I was going to be there.
Rita Moreno, 91
Now: Actress, singer and dancer; one of only 18 people to have received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards
Then: Member of the “celebrity delegation” to the march
On Dr. King’s behalf, Harry Belafonte invited many of us to attend. I’m guessing he felt it was important to let Dr. King and the world know there were people in Hollywood who were very serious about human rights. And, of course, everybody he invited dropped everything and said, “Absolutely.” We chartered a plane from L.A. to D.C. — Harry was on it, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, the SNCC Freedom Singers.
Louis Armmand, 79
Now: Attorney, former educator
Then: High school student and CORE volunteer
COURTESY LOUIS ARMMAND
At the meeting, we found a few couples, maybe a decade older than we were, sitting around and chatting. We felt disillusioned by the lack of organization. So, we mobilized ourselves, creating a committee of teenagers to ensure we had a delegation attending on the day.
We wanted to organize a local rally the week before the march, to drum up interest. But you had to go to the local precinct to get a parade permit. As a shy 19-year-old, I couldn’t even face my favorite uncle when he came to visit on a Sunday afternoon; he would give me a dollar, and I would run upstairs. But for this, I somehow summoned the courage to ask the sergeant for the paperwork and fill it out. We held our rally, and the following week we sent five buses full of marchers to D.C.