I am blessed to have been among thousands of white college students who participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Watching and reading with a sense of nostalgia the media coverage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march has reminded me of my strong belief that the enduring significance of the march cannot be fully understood if we focus primarily on its tangible accomplishments, important though they were. Clearly, the march was a key factor in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And although it doesn't get sufficient credit for other legislation, the momentum it created was at least partially responsible for immigration reform, the war on poverty, and Medicare and Medicaid.
But to judge the impact of the March only in terms of tangible accomplishments such as these pieces of legislation misses, I believe, the most important consequence of the march -- it empowered and inspired people at a deeper emotional level than ever before at a moment when anger and frustration threatened both the sense of hope and the courageous non-violence that had characterized the Civil Rights Movement to that point.
There had been brutal events in the spring and summer leading up to the March:
- Governor George Wallace had stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to deny admission to black students.
- Black children in Birmingham, AL had been beaten, fire hosed, electric cattle prodded, and attacked by police dogs before being arrested for peacefully protesting blatant and rampant racism.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested in Birmingham during the demonstrations and had been urged by white clergy in Birmingham to go slow. This precipitated his passionate and brilliant "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
- Medgar Evers had been murdered in the driveway of his home in front of his wife and children.
On the day of the March, James Farmer, the head of CORE, was in jail in Plaquemines Parish, LA, where Leander Perez ruled with a vicious and racist iron hand.
Coming on the heels of the violent responses earlier to the sit-ins and the freedom rides, an increasing number of black people -- and some white people, primarily northern college students -- were being swayed by the more militant and angry rhetoric of Malcolm X. In the days before the March, skeptics and opponents--and even some supporters -- were anxious about possible violence and a low turn-out. Some feared -- and some hoped -- that, Bayard Rustin's organizational skill notwithstanding, it had the potential to sound the death knell for the non-violent aspect of the movement. Questions abounded:
- Would there be violence during the March?
- Would enough people show up to avoid horrible embarrassment and disappointment?
- Would the marchers be racially and geographically diverse?
- And, on a practical level, would the weather cooperate?
Well, we know the answers:
- It was a peaceful, even festive, March.
- The massive and well-integrated crowd of 250,000+ from across the country made a statement that President Kennedy and others couldn't ignore.
- The weather was hot and humid, typical for Washington, DC in August, but it didn't rain.
- The music, from Mahalia Jackson to Pete Seeger, was energizing and had a bonding effect on the crowd.
- And the speeches, especially in my opinion the speeches of John Lewis, Walter Reuther, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, in addition to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, were uplifting and inspiring. Dr. King's line that this "is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism" was a direct response to the white clergy of Birmingham and to many other white people who were urging black people to "go slow." It drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd. And he spoke to the growing anger when he warned that we should "not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
We remain a long way from total victory, but, to me, the sense that victory is inevitable is the true meaning and significance of the March, and it is what should steel us for the rocky road that still remains.
Michael Wenger is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. His recently published memoir is entitled My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man's Journey Through the Nation's Racial Minefield.