‘It Was Like a Civil Rights Woodstock’: An Oral History of the March on Washington

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    THE DAY OF THE MARCH

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    Joseph E. Lowery, vice president and co-founder of SCLC:
    We were surprised and excited because we hadn’t really tried a national march before. We weren’t sure how many to expect. I got there early because I had come down from Chicago and I got out [on the mall] and nobody was there. I got a little worried, but soon buses started pulling up and I could see the people were coming. And seeing all those people, black people, white people, everybody together, it was something.

    CT Vivian, SCLC director of affiliates and liaison to Martin Luther King Jr.:
    That morning there was about seven of us sitting up in front of the Washington monument and we were waiting to see whether this was gonna be a success…wondering would people really come. When people flooded in, we knew that this was going to be a major change in our relationships to the American public, the American white public in particular, and to the power decision makers in American action and thought.

    Elizabeth Williams-Omilami, daughter of Hosea Williams, SCLC coordinator and executive board member:
    I had been coming to civil rights marches all my life, but I just thought it was the biggest, most exciting event that I probably would ever go through in my life. I was with the staff, we were working on food for the marchers, water, where people were gonna sleep. And being a little girl watching all of that happen around me…I just really cried, because, you know, it was so beautiful. It was like what you think heaven would be like – black people, white people, Jewish people, Hispanic people, the singing, the songs, the music. It was like a civil rights Woodstock or something like that.

    Clayton:
    I remember I jokingly said ‘Oh boy, [the march is] gonna be met with great resistance. The White House and all the people in Washington do not want all you black people up there walking on the grass.’ I made kind of a joke about it, so you can imagine, as was everybody, I was very surprised when over 250,000 people decided they were gonna go.

    Lowery:
    We were only hoping for 50,000 people. If we got that we figured it’d be big. It ended up being around 300,000 people. At first they tried to say it was only 100,000 then they said 150,000 and then 200,000. Finally they got to 250,000.

    George Mitchell, march participant and Howard University student:
    We left Chicago in the afternoon. We rode there all night and got there in the morning…As I recalled we got there around 7:30, 8:00 in the morning. By the time we got there we couldn’t get very close to the actual podium, to the dais. We were about halfway back by the reflecting pool.

    I knew there would be a lot of people, but I had no idea how big the crowd would be. When someone tells you a quarter million people it’s hard to imagine that until you’re there then you say, ‘Holy moly, look at all these people here.’

    John Lewis, chairman of SNCC and March on Washington speaker:
    Many of us were coming fresh from the heart of the Deep South, some of us fresh from jails…Medgar Evers had been assassinated, we had been beaten on the Freedom Rides, beaten during the sit-ins, and Dr. King and Rev. Abernarthy and Fred Shuttlesworth had been arrested in Birmingham. So they came to Washington to petition the congress and the president. And to see that sea of humanity from all over the country, it was very, very moving.

    Vivian:
    We were trying to be heard in terms of making the nation realize that it had to make a change. And that’s what all of our organizations were doing. Remember, we were so shaky that we didn’t want John Lewis to even speak, because he represented [SNCC] and…he was too radical, we thought. It’s our group that was afraid of that, not just white people, because we didn’t want to shake white people’s belief that we were nice guys, good fellas.

    Lewis:
    [SNCC] brought a sense of urgency. Some people said we were too fiery, that we were too militant, they wanted me to cool down. I understood what people were saying, that we should be together and should be singing from the same book. Dr. King said, ‘Can we change [the speech]? It doesn’t represent you.’ A Philip Randolph said, ‘We’ve come so far together, Can we change that?’ I had so much affection and love for those two men, I couldn’t say no to Dr. King and I couldn’t say no to A. Philip Randolph.

    Nan Grogan Orrock, march participant and Mary Washington College student:
    People may not realize this 50 years later but Washington was in a turmoil. There was all this media coverage on press and radio about how people were leaving the city…and that people were gonna be armed sitting on their front porches because the black hordes were coming to town. The federal government shut down. Federal everything was closed, shut down, for that day.

    Lewis:
    They asked people to stay home. They closed all the liquor stores. But it was so orderly, it was so peaceful; not a single arrest. It was like going to a church camp meeting.

    Lafayette:
    [President John F. Kennedy] was supportive of the efforts we were making in the areas of civil rights, but he also was mindful of the fact that he was working on the international scene and he was touting the virtues of democracy and a public form of government as opposed to communism. This was an era in which we were trying to show the rest of the world that a U.S. form of democracy should be more desirable and more effective and fair and is the system that modeled others.

    And what JFK was concerned about is that these demonstrations and these marches showed discontent with the system. It made it a little more difficult for him to try to tell the rest of the world to look at us as a model when you had people complaining and protesting that they were not treated as equal citizens. In spite of that, we felt that we had been waiting too long.

    Orrock:
    I had actually had the luxury as a white person in the South to not truly understand the depths of racial oppression and what it meant for people in their lives and how compelled people were to fight against it. The oppression of people of color was not being taught to white kids in the South, you can believe. I knew that whole chapters of America’s history and the American reality were not being shared with people of my skin color. So [the march] was a real eye opener for me.

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