This is an overhead view of the crowd gathered between the Lincoln and Washington memorials at the climax of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Harry Reid, who worked at night to pay his way in law school, remembers he was at the capitol early that morning. He’s not sure whether he was still a capitol police officer or had moved to a capitol post office job, but both of them were night jobs, so he was still at work at break of day. He remembers his biggest impression when he looked out a window.

“And I was stunned by the buses. … Buses. Ten Buses. A hundred buses, two—there must have been a thousand. Every street is nothing but buses. I didn’t know there were that many buses in the world, let alone that many in Washington. That’s what I remember.”

Those buses, from all parts of the nation, transported tens of thousands of people. Estimates of the Washington, D.C., crowd on Aug. 28, 1963, were all over the map, but 200,000 was heard frequently.

The March on Washington is today cloaked in such a fog of hallowed respect that it is often forgotten that trouble was widely expected. Reporters asked African-American leaders about the possibility. Editorial and politicians tut-tutted at black leaders on the need for African-American leaders to ride herd on the crowds.

Protest then did not have the kind of legitimacy it has today, nor were demonstrations as routine as they are now. That change was accomplished by the civil rights and subsequent antiwar movements. So it is not surprising that in 1963 hospitals in the D.C. area were prepared for an influx of injuries, that jails were ready and thousands of troops were waiting outside the city for a call to go in. President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy had opposed the march, and one of the president’s own campaign organizers was posted behind the large sculpture of a seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial with a switch, ready to cut off power to the public address system. The president declined to speak at the gathering and avoided a pre-march meeting with black leaders. A scheduled post-march meeting could always be canceled if things went badly.

But in the end, there was not a single arrest, or three arrests, or four that day, depending on who’s telling it. But there was no arrest of demonstrators. The late Nevada NAACP leader Bertha Woodard later said, “There was a great crowd, and it was very orderly.”

The march was originally scheduled by African-American labor leader A. Phillip Randolph for July 1, 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt, like Kennedy, didn’t like the idea one bit, but Randolph refused to cancel it until after Roosevelt signed an executive order throwing thousands of defense jobs open to previously barred blacks and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce it.

Photo By UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES WOODARD

When the march was finally held in 1963, it was about the same thing—jobs, a fact little remembered today. Its official name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Also lost in the mists of time is the militance of the day. The largest number of signs were those that contained a demand—“Jobs for all,” “Voting rights,” “An end to bias,” “An end to police brutality”—followed by the word “Now!” at the bottom of each sign.

It’s important to remember that the purpose of the march was to educate and pressure white people, so the fact that so many of them attended in person was heartening to blacks. As Woodard pointed out, marchers were promoting Kennedy legislation “to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission, to permit the intervention of the Justice Department in civil rights matters, to provide for fair housing, and so forth. The march was partly to show support for these bills.” Woodard said Time magazine reported after the march that those provisions could not pass, but Kennedy’s murder helped fuel their passage in 1964. (Woodard returned to D.C. in 1983 for a 20th anniversary march.) Two other Reno black leaders who attended the 1963 march, Eddie Scott and Erma Fritchen, visited Rosa Parks on their way to D.C. They were not available for interviews.

Randolph, in deference to his historic role in conceiving of the march, spoke first in 1963, and set the tone for firmness: “Those who deplore our militance, who exalt patience in the name of a false peace are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation.”

John Lewis, now a member of the U.S. House, was then a young and fiery leader whose prepared text included the lines, “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 non-violently.” It took pressure from the president himself to pry those words out, but Lewis’s speech was still plenty strong: “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ’Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?” (The original version of the speech can be read at www.crmvet.org/info/mowjl.htm)

Susan and Eugene Paslov, now of Carson City, were in Peace Corps training for tours in Turkey. Corps officials had warned trainees to stay away from the march.

“There were a number of us in Peace Corps training, and we walked in a kind of a phalanx for a while,” Susan said this week, describing their participation. “I think we may have had a banner. We were there fairly early, and we got up in the front fairly near the Lincoln Memorial in a kind of grove of trees that some labor groups had staked out. It was on the National Mall, and you couldn’t see anything but the reflecting pool because everything else was covered with people.”

The Paslovs remember Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan performing. It was this occasion, as much as anything, that made “Blowin’ in the Wind” a civil rights anthem second only to “We Shall Overcome.” There was a lot of inspiring music that day. Mahalia Jackson sang the spiritual “I’ve Been ’buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at Martin Luther King’s request.

Gene Paslov said the crowd was not loud or boisterous. Rather, it was almost quiet—the sound from the crowd at most times was “kind of a low murmur” unless someone speaking or performing was applauded or cheered. “During King’s speech you could have heard a pin drop,” he said.

Photo By ALLISON YOUNG THE PASLOVS

That speech did much in later years to drain the militance from the public’s perception of the march. The incessant replaying of the “dream” portion of the speech later sanitized for white ears both the speech itself and the march. Other parts of King’s speech were not at all middle-of-the-road:

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

He also spoke of the “marvelous new militancy” among African-Americans (a term that was not yet in common use).

The “now is the time” litany received more attention than the dream portion that year. The “blow off steam” comment led that day’s Associated Press account of the march. When NBC News put out a record album on the year’s events (A Time to Keep 1963), it was this section, not the “dream” segment, that was used.

Whether the famous march left a bequest for the future is not at all certain.

Twenty-one years after the jobs march, a study by the Center for the Study of Social Policy reported that while African-Americans had made political gains in the previous quarter century, they made no economic gains at all.

Last year a Stanford University study reported that “hundreds of large and medium-sized school districts in the South have steadily resegregated, slowly moving away from the ideal of black and white children attending school together.”

King himself is reported to have said, after the Selma march and the Watts riots, “They have turned my dream into a nightmare.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...