- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2013


The expectations to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are as great and diverse as they were in 1963, when a quarter of a million people sandwiched themselves along the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to prove that we can, should and, indeed, could all get along.

There also was a lot of what surely in the early 1960s was considered inappropriateness.

Actors James Garner and Diahann Carroll walked hand-in-hand.

United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther marched alongside Pullman porter leader A. Philip Randolph, a chief organizer of the rally.

Charlton Heston, future National Rifle Association leader, read the words of black literary giant James Baldwin. (Heston once said he supported civil rights before doing so became “fashionable” in Hollywood.)

Future D.C. Mayor Marion Barry huddled with other young activists, including future congressman John Lewis, whose prepared speech had many of the then-older guardians of the movement on edge because Mr. Lewis challenged the Washington political establishment, which was fashioning civil rights legislation after the world had witnessed the bloodied and bigoted hands of the South.

On the day of the march, the messages were many — including protests against discrimination, segregation, high unemployment rates, disenfranchisement at the ballot box, sanctioned violence against white and black Americans, among others.

Blacks and whites worshipped the same God but did so in separate houses of worship.

On Aug. 28, 1963, came two young Southerners, Mr. Lewis, reared in Alabama, and Mr. Barry of Tennessee; sisters Joyce and Dorie Ladner of Mississippi and thousands like them; clergy and entertainers from around the globe and thousands like them; and day laborers and domestic workers, and housewives and able-bodied veterans to lend their voices to a movement that had started with a simple request to end discrimination based on race.

“It was amazing to see and hear,” Mr. Barry said Wednesday as we chatted after his narrative to scores of people at the African American Civil War Memorial in Northwest.

There was a seminal moment singled out by Mr. Barry, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee back in the day.

“We were young and we wanted John to speak. We wanted our voices and messages to be heard,” he said. “The collective [the NAACP, the National Urban League and others] said his prepared speech was ‘not appropriate.’”

For certain, it was, as many of the members of SNCC were radicals, and their impatience for change was reflected in Mr. Lewis‘ speech, which blasted the Kennedy administration, Congress and the Justice Department.

“But we had been in the vanguard with the tactics and strategies,” Mr. Barry said. “We told them at the rally, at the memorial, that we were going to take over the microphones if John didn’t speak.”

And speak Mr. Lewis did — but his words were tempered.

Gone was the call to march “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” and the phrase “which side is the federal government on?”

While other phrasing was also changed, Mr. Barry, whose political and personal salvos have been heard around the world, said as young revolutionaries they got their points across.

“We were red hot,” he said. “To have John speak, to see all those people, meant our hard work [and] risking our lives was paying off.

“We were a band of brothers [and sisters], a circle of trust,” Mr. Barry added.

Whether that solidarity will be seen and heard during the last weekend of August for the anniversary is unclear.

Some groups are rallying around a do-it-for-Trayvon Martin call, and others plan to cite the need for D.C. statehood. Still others simply want to pay homage to the ancestors of the civil rights movement.

So the messages and the messengers will be plentiful.

The key is to make sure it doesn’t become an all-black thing, which, after all was said and done, was the most important message on Aug. 28, 1963.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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