Memories From the March

The Root spoke to young organizers of the 1963 march. They remember a day filled with pride, power and passion.

NC A&T students Charles Alston, William Thomas, Donald Lyons, Lewis Brandon, Robert Patterson (Lewis Brandon)
NC A&T students Charles Alston, William Thomas, Donald Lyons, Lewis Brandon, Robert Patterson (Lewis Brandon)

(The Root) — For much of the last month, dozens of media outlets have told the story of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. We know of the major organizers — Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and others — whose stories have been told for many years. But there were thousands of young organizers whose stories often go overlooked. Today, The Root takes a look at several of these field organizers whose dedication made the march — and the movement — a success.

Lewis Brandon, 24 in 1963, Civil Rights Activist in Greensboro, N.C., Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

“People keep talking about the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but we weren’t there dreaming about anything. We were making demands about voter registration, education, health and housing issues at the March on Washington.

“No one knew that Martin was going to add the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion, but he delivered a hard-hitting message aimed at the government. But people don’t hear that; they just listen to the end, and the media co-opted the whole thing.

“Now, the problem is folks like Michael Eric Dyson saying, ‘Come to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March.’ But it wasn’t Dr. King’s March. A. Philip Randolph was the director, and Bayard Rustin was his second. King’s speech climax was powerful, but people should really listen to the whole of it.

Travis Britt, 28 in 1963, Freedom Rider, CORE

“I was a Freedom Rider and a CORE member before the March on Washington. They gave me a weapon to combat segregation. Until then I was afraid of white people, but through the movement, I fought my fear.

“During the Freedom Ride, we were in jail in Jackson, Miss., with Dr. King. He asked us if we believed in nonviolence, because it would be more effective than violence, though still dangerous. We could be killed, so if any of us were afraid of dying or weren’t prepared to die, we should probably go home.

“My greatest memory from the march was Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It still moves me to tears; his words were performing miracles. That day I watched a police officer standing a few feet away from Dr. King on the platform. Initially he seemed to be part of the establishment, but he got caught up in Dr. King’s speech. When Dr. King said, ‘Free at last,’ this officer was so moved by his words that it was visible on his face.”

Judge Arthur Burnett, 28 in 1963, Special Assistant to Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Department of Justice; Plaintiff in NAACP and Thurgood Marshall’s Desegregation Case in Virginia

“I was a Department of Justice observer, undercover, watching for potential race riots or police misconduct. As a black I didn’t stick out. Everyone assumed I was a college student or part of Martin Luther King’s entourage.

“Not that the Justice Department expected anything to happen, but the March on Washington was right after the James Meredith desegregation issues in Mississippi, and in Alabama you still had the Ku Klux Klan threatening to lynch blacks.

“I thought MLK went to the heart of what this country ought to stand for. It really gave reality to the Declaration of Independence and how a person should be able to achieve based on his or her God-given talents and abilities. King’s speech was on par with Thomas Jefferson’s on the Declaration of Independence, though that document was only talking about white men at the time.

“The energy of the March on Washington attendees was enthusiastic, but my philosophy is rather than protest, use your economic power and vote.”