It is an old cliché: that journalism is the "first rough draft of history," the immediate attempt to contextualize events and understand their possible place in our historical memory.

It's common to look back at a story and wonder why it was given so much play, or to question how reporters could have missed something monumental happening right in front of their faces.

For the most part, the March on Washington was not one of those moments. People knew it was something big.

In "The Race Beat," their history of the media's coverage of the civil rights movement, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tally up the relatively vast amount of resources that newspapers and radio stations and television networks devoted to the march.

There were, they write, around 3,100 police or press passes given to journalists on the scene. The big three television networks, together with the Mutual Broadcasting radio service, sent 460 people to capture video and audio. NBC aired eleven special reports throughout the day. CBS ran the whole thing all the way through. It was broadcast live to six countries.

NBC's Frank McGee called the march part of the "American Revolution of 1963."

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On CBS, the correspondents compared the day to a "church picnic."

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NBC's Nancy Dickerson speaks to Lena Horne.


***

Even so, some newspapers would probably look at their front page from August 29, 1963 and cringe. Beyond the baldly racist southern newspapers, who have essentially had to apologize for the totality of their coverage of the movement, there are the northern papers who might wish they had done some things differently.

The march had to compete with the signing of a bill by President Kennedy to avert a national rail strike, and it often played second fiddle on front pages across the country.

The Chicago Tribune, for instance, would likely have had a different order of headlines in its edition than the one it came up with:

"CALL OFF RAIL STRIKE."

"Board OK's School Bias Study."

"200,000 Roar Plea for Negro Opportunity in Rights March on Washington; No Incidents"

There is no doubt that, historically speaking, the Tribune got the order wrong. The paper's editorial board also had little to say about the march. It noted briefly that "such oratory as there was, was less superheated than might have been expected."

Then, there were writers like columnist David Lawrence, who called the march a "day of public disgrace" in a piece syndicated to newspapers around the country.

"For the image of the United States presented to the world is that of a republic which had professed to believe in volunteerism rather than coercion, but which on August 28, 1963, permitted itself to be portrayed as unable to legislate 'equal rights' for its citizens except under the intimidating influence of mass demonstrations," he wrote.

History does not agree with Lawrence either.

The Chicago Defender, stalwart of the black press, was probably a little closer to the mark:

chicago defender

***

In the past week, NBC News has been running a series of videos on YouTube. They feature everyone from Ann Curry to Chris Christie to One Direction talking about what their "dream" for the world is. (One Direction wants an end to war, hunger and bullying.)

The videos imply that Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech can be claimed by anyone, used for any purpose—cancer research, an end to financial misdeeds, political bipartisanship—and that all of this can be traced back to King's words.

Yet to look back at how the march and speech were covered is also to remember that the civil rights movement was not always a settled question; it was a living, breathing, divisive, polarizing thing, not something that people of every political stripe could embrace so easily.

White people were especially leery of the march. Most of them thought there would be riots in the streets.

"This is the day of the march for civil rights in the nation's capital and the dread specter of possible violence hangs over the proceeding," the Chicago Sun-Times wrote the day of the march.

President Kennedy didn't want the event to happen.

"8,000 Will Keep Peace at the March," an August 14th headline from the Washington Daily News read. The lede went like this: "Anyone who is thinking of coming to Washington to stir up trouble during the Aug. 28 civil rights march would be well advised to forget it."

Watching NBC's interview with King and NAACP chair Roy Wilkins from just before the march is instructive. King was hated by many, and he was, lest we forget, an unrepentantly militant activist who had been to jail not long before the march due to that activism.

Here's the first question, from journalist Lawrence Spivak: "There are a great many people who believe it will be impossible to bring 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incident and possibly riots."

We see the all-white, all-male group of panelists wonder whether the march is wise; whether there will be violence; whether the movement is moving too quickly.

After the march, a Baltimore Sun piece noted that just three people had been arrested, and "not one was a Negro."

march on washington

The day before the march.


***

There was another thing most news outlets didn't highlight too much right away: King's speech. Longtime Washington Post staffer Robert Kaiser recently noted that his paper had virtually ignored it in the days after the march. But the Post was hardly alone.

Though the "I Have A Dream" section has become perhaps the most famous passage in American history, most media outlets either ignored it or focused on other portions of King's address. The New York Amsterdam News, for instance, praised King to the skies, but its reprint of the speech didn't even include the "I Have A Dream" section. Months later, Time magazine named King its "Man of the Year." It spent 11 pages on his life and work, and talked about his speech at the march, but didn't mention "I Have A Dream."

The full speech is angrier, more pointed, more confrontational than the vaunted section. It is centered not on talk of hopes but of bitter realities—of, as King put it, a "bad check" written by the American government to its black citizens.

According to Gary Younge, the Guardian journalist who has written a book about King's speech, the "I Have A Dream" section wasn't even supposed to be part of the remarks. It wasn't in King's prepared text. He'd made similar comments in prior addresses, and wasn't intending to make them again at the Lincoln Memorial. But then singer Mahalia Jackson exhorted him to tell the audience about his dream, and so he did.

Clarence Jones, a close adviser who helped King write the speech, told Younge in a BBC interview that he didn't think the speech would be the one King was remembered for 50 years later.

"The speech itself, as a speech, it was a good speech," he said. "But substantively, it was not necessarily his greatest speech. But something happened."

The New York Times was notably prescient about the power of the "I Have A Dream" passage, and put a story about it on its front page the day after the march. The normally hyper-establishmentarian James "Scotty" Reston was blown away:

"Dr. King brought them alive in the late afternoon with a peroration that was an anguished echo from all the old American reformers. Roger Williams calling for religious liberty, Sam Adams calling for political liberty, old man Thoreau denouncing coercion, William Lloyd Garrison demanding emancipation, and Eugene V. Debs crying for economic equality—Dr. King echoed them all."

nyt


***

There is also a danger in seeing the march as some kind of definitive hinge, a turning point that meant that America was wholly changed—and to keep King standing at that podium forever. Yet, three years later, Mike Wallace interviewed King for CBS. This was after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had both passed Congress and been signed into law. There was King, talking about waves of angry violence that had swept through poor black communities.

"The cry of black power," he said, "is at bottom a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro." America, he went on, "has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years."

He then had to bat away a question from Wallace about why Jews could make it out of their "ghetto," but black people had a harder time. American Jews, he pointed out, had never been enslaved.

A year later, King would call the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." That speech is, to say the least, less remembered than "I Have A Dream."


***

So, what are we to take from the way the media reported the March on Washington in real time 50 years ago? Mostly, it is worth being reminded that history sometimes has a way of making fools of us. A march is more important than a rail strike. A seemingly routine speech is actually an immortal one. Only a relative few thought "I Have A Dream" would matter much after the march was finished. What similar milestones have we all missed?

But the coverage also shows why it is always worth striving to push past our settled narratives of history, and to search out the complexities behind any event—both past and present.

And, of course, we should remember to be inspired by what happened on August 28th, 1963. It was a glorious day.

afro american

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  • FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo shows civil rights demonstrators gather at the Washington Monument grounds before noon, before marching to the Lincoln Memorial, seen in the far background at right, where the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will end with a speech by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., now known as the "I Have A Dream" speech. Next Wednesday, the nation’s first black president will stand near the spot where King stood 50 years ago, a living symbol of the racial progress King dreamed about, and enunciate where he believes this nation should be headed. (AP Photo, File)

  • (FILES) US civil rights leader Martin Lu

    (FILES) US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. waves to supporters 28 August 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC during the 'March on Washington'. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 28 August, 2003 marks the 40th anniversay of the speech. King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, who confessed to the shooting and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

  • More than 200,000 civil right supporters gather 28

    WASHINGTON, : More than 200,000 civil right supporters gather 28 August, 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC ( Washington Monument in background) during the 'March on Washington', that US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. said the march was 'the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.' King delivered his 'I have a dream' speech during the rally, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 28 August, 2003 marks the 40th anniversary of the speech. King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, who confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

  • (FILES) US civil rights leader Martin Lu

    (FILES) US civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng (3rd from L) walks with supporters during the 'March on Washington' 28 August, 1963 after which, King delivered the 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the LIncoln Memorial. 28 August, 2003 marks the 40th anniversary of the famous speech, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

  • (FILES) The clergyman and civil rights l

    (FILES) The clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng (C) and other black and white civil right leaders march 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC during the 'March on Washington'. King said the march was 'the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.' Martin Luther King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. King's killing sent shock waves through American society at the time, and is still regarded as a landmark event in recent US history. (Photo credit should read OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther

    WASHINGTON, : US clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng (ctr, rt.) and other major American leaders of the Black civil rights movement (l-r) John Lewis, Whitney Young, Philip Randolph, M. L. King, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins, meet 06 March 1963 in New York during a meeting dedicated to the organization of the 'March on Washington', held 28 August 1963 to promote civil rights for Afro-Americans. Martin Luther King was assassinated 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. King's killing sent shock waves through American society at the time, and is still regarded as a landmark event in recent US history. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: (l-r) NBC News' Merrill 'Red' Mueller, actor Paul Newman during an interview at Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Sammy Davis Jr., NBC News' Merrill 'Red' Mueller, NAACP President Roy Wilkins during an interview at Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: Civil Rights activists gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: NBC News' Nancy Dickerson (left) during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: (l-r) United Auto Workers Union President Walter Reuther, NBC News' Ray Scherer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

  • NBC News: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963

    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: (l-r) Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, NBC News' Ray Scherer during an interview at Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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    NBC News -- MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM 1968 -- Pictured: (l-r) NBC News' Nancy Dickerson, Mississippi SNCC March Coordinator Joyce Ladner during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

  • March On Washington Buttons

    Civil rights campaigner and organizer Karen House holds up buttons for the upcoming 'March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom,' Washington, DC, August 1, 1963. During the August 28 event Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous 'I have a dream' speech to a crowd of several hundred thousand. The buttons, which depcit a black hand and a white hand clasped in solidarity, were supplied by the NAACP. (Photo by Arnold Sachs/Getty Images)

  • FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in Washington. Immediately after the march, they discussed civil rights legislation that was finally inching through Congress. The leaders pressed Kennedy to strengthen the legislation; the president listed many obstacles. Some believe Kennedy preferred to wait until after the 1964 election to push the issue. Yet in his public speeches, he spoke more and more about justice for all. From second left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; Dr. Martin Luther King, Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, partially obscured; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress; Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, National Council of Churches; A. Philip Randolph, AFL-CIO vice president; Kennedy; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, partially obscured, and Roy Wilkins, NAACP. (AP Photo/File)

  • This August 28, 1963 publicity photo provided by PBS, courtesy Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos, shows activists during The March on Washington in Washington, D.C. from the film,"Makers: Women Who Make America." The Women’s Movement was influenced in part by the Civil Rights Movement. The three-hour PBS documentary about the fight for women's equality, airs Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, and features prominent activists including Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas. (AP Photo/PBS, Courtesy Leonard Freed, Magnum Photos)

  • Clinton Brown

    FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the top of the Washington Monument and part of a U.S. flag are reflected in the sunglasses of Austin Clinton Brown, 9, of Gainesville, Ga., as he poses at the Capitol where he joins others in the March on Washington. The March on Washington was just one of a number of historical events that occurred in 1963. (AP Photo/File)

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    FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Dorothy Height, right, National President of the National Council of Negro Women and Director of the center for Racial Justice of the national YWCA, listens as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gestures during his "I Have a Dream" speech as he addresses thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. Height, who as longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women was the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement, died Tuesday, April 20, 2010. She was 98. (AP Photo, File)