Memories From the March

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."

Beverly Alston, 12 in 1963, HARYOU Leadership Trainee

"In 1963, there was a leadership program called HARYOU, the precursor to all of the poverty programs, and it was also a study of Harlem ghetto youth. We 32 trainees, mostly made up of high school or college students, were well-briefed on our purpose and lectured every day by people like Malcolm X. For the march, we traveled to Washington, D.C., on an uncomfortable yellow school bus.


"As a third generation Harlemite, I'd never even seen so many white people before that hot day in 1963. Adults had children on their shoulders and everyone was singing; it was such harmony.

"My attention wasn't as focused as some of the older trainees and I wasn't a Martin Luther King-ite — I'd barely heard of him. Depending on where you were from, certainly if home was a Southern state, you were marching for desegregation and freedom. Folks from the North were more centered on jobs and equal opportunity. But I distinctly remember a hush falling over the crowd as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. I will never forget that or the freedom songs like 'We Shall Overcome' sung by blacks and whites holding hands.


Gale Liebman, 20 in 1963, Tutor in Pittsburgh's Hill District

"When I heard about the March on Washington, I was excited, but my parents were fearful for my safety because there wasn't a history of demonstrations in 1963. Ultimately my aunt, a retired teacher, told my parents that she'd go with me.


"The train ride to Washington, D.C., was 16 hours and so packed, I couldn't sleep. We all held hands and sang. I felt that I was a small part of something big and promising.

"When we arrived, I remember walking toward the Washington Monument and there were a dozen neo-Nazi Party members with swastikas and flags. In 1963 there weren't nearly as many hate groups as there are now, so that was unnerving to me, a Jewish person whose grandmother died in Auschwitz. They were surrounded by the National Guard, so we felt safe. Then before I knew it, people started singing again, and we began marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It was clear then how, in peaceful and war movements, people are moved by song. It fills your soul. I sang and felt so exhilarated.


Teresa Jones, 29 in 1963, Washington, D.C., Public Housing and Poverty Activist

"The march wasn't arranged to bring awareness to Martin Luther King Jr.; he rose to the occasion. He came out front, but there were other people on the platform that wanted to do what he did. Why they didn't do it, I don't know, but Martin emerged as our leader from that march.


"At the time, I was working with a reverend and organizing a group of public housing tenants to attend the march. I got separated so I wandered to the stage and stayed. I was right in front of the platform, standing near Mahalia Jackson. I can only tell you what I saw, but I remember Martin speaking and coming to closure. Then I remember Mahalia turning around and, in a voice we could hear, saying, 'Preach, Martin, preach,' and that was when he said, 'I have a dream' and went from there.

"I know people will yell at me but the march really inspired Martin, not us. People were inspired, instead, by realizing that Martin was the man to follow. Today, I understand that we needed a march because it brought whites to see our plight, and it also inspired black people who weren't active to become active.


"Some years ago, I was in Atlanta visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and I met an older guy delivering the mail. We spoke about the King Center and he told me, 'Martin just stirred up trouble, and we didn't want to stir up no trouble.' Folk in the South had a fear, which was natural, and some possibly didn't want King doing anything to rock their boats. I thought he was bringing light and justice to the state of blacks in America, but I think you have to stir up things if you want something."

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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