The year 1963 marked a turning point in the battle for black civil rights in America. The struggle was moving from localised boycotts, sit-ins and Freedom Rides to major, carefully planned confrontations involving thousands.
Each wave of action raised the stakes—for the movement, their segregationist opponents, and for the president and his allies in Washington. And, as the struggle intensified, the class background of those taking to the streets broadened to include many workers and the poor.
A mood of angry impatience gripped the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly young activists, black and white, that now swelled the ranks. The demand of “Freedom Now” was more than just a slogan—it was the defiant chant of those who rejected talk of “slow change”.
Martin Luther King captured the feeling in the title of his book, Why We Can’t Wait, in which he described the Civil Rights Movement as America’s “Negro Revolution”. In the spring of 1963 images of protesters in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, being blasted by jets from police water cannon filled the media.
As months passed these were supplanted with pictures of burning buildings during the riots that followed and it was easy to believe that King had called it right.
In the aftermath of Birmingham, activists prepared for an assault on Washington. Many saw this as a chance to shutdown the capital with sit-ins at railway stations, on the highways and at the airport. They wanted to stay until the South’s racist laws were overturned.
The march came 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War that formally ended slavery. It would turn the spotlight on the white liberals in government who said they opposed segregation, but who would do nothing to outlaw it.
President John F Kennedy’s administration had only recently declared this was not the right time for civil rights legislation. But after Birmingham it knew that the only way to head off confrontation was to offer concessions.
“The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them,” declared the president, in a hastily-convened broadcast. “The fires of frustration and discord are busy in every city. Redress is sought in the street,” he said, acknowledging that it was mass protest that had forced his hand.
But Kennedy, and the Democratic Party machine that surrounded him, also made demands of the movement. The price of the legislation was that the coming march on Washington be transformed into a celebratory endorsement of the government. Moderates were expected to control radicals, and King, as a figure who tried to hold both wings together, was expected to play a pivotal role.
The prize of the first federal anti?segregation laws since the Civil War was too big for King to resist.
Nevertheless, the state shuddered at the thought of thousands of black people marching through the capital. It was fully prepared for disorder, insurrection even. The five surrounding military bases were put on full alert—19,000 heavily armed special forces troops were on standby to be airlifted in 30 large helicopters.
Several hundred inmates were freed from state jails to make room for protesters. Among the hundreds of FBI agents circulating in the crowd, one was planted near the stage ready to pull the plug on any radical speaker. They would be replaced by a recording of gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.
The text of every speech was to be previewed by Kennedy’s staff and a selection of moderate black leaders.
John Lewis, of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), wanted to say Kennedy’s entrance into the battle for civil rights was “too little, too late.” But his speech was censored.
Nevertheless, Lewis got a huge applause when he spoke from the podium, saying, “We will splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy… We cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”
Whatever misgivings grassroots activists may have had about the way the protest had been taken over were muted by the sheer numbers that came to join it. Between and quarter and a third of a million arrived in Washington on Wednesday 28 August, 1963.
It was the biggest march in the history of the capital, dwarfing the previous record holder—the Ku Klux Klan in 1925!
There were 22 chartered trains, 2,000 charted buses, and thousands of car pools. And, some marchers endured a more dangerous journey.
Robert Avery and a group of friends hitched from Alabama. Despite segregation, almost all those who picked up the three black teens were white. As the group drove through the mountains of Tennessee they saw effigies of black people hanging outside service stations.
“The dummies they hung out, the Rebel flags hanging from lampposts,” Robert recalls, “that wasn’t sending a signal. It was sending a strong message… People understood that you can’t stop here.”
The march was estimated at about three-quarters black, one-quarter white and Latino, and contained a large contingent of organised labour—despite the main national union federation refusing to back it.
“As I looked at the faces, I was awestruck by the multi-coloured faces of the marchers—their dedication, their sincerity, their sombreness,” remembers student radical, Avon Rollins, who went on to endure 30 jailings during his time in the movement. “I shall never forget looking straight ahead at hundreds of thousands of people surrounding the Reflection Pool and assembled all around the National Mall.”
The numbers mattered. The hundreds of thousands in the streets filled people with a sense of their own power. No longer could it be said that civil rights were the concern of only a minority. The march, rather than announcing the conclusion of the struggle for civil rights, instead opened up a new phase. More radical demands and tactics would now come to the fore.
Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech, which he delivered on the day, is rightly commemorated as one of the greatest of all time. The mainstream media always focus on its depiction of a future where children enjoy life without racial barriers, but it also contained passages far less palatable to the powerful—ones that continue to resonate.
He said that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro still languishing in the corners of the American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
It is a cruel irony that 50 years on, so many of King’s words echo among those who continue to find that the colour of their skin is enough to make them victims of the American dream.
Joyce Ladner, civil rights campaign worker
“We went to Washington the day before the march. Malcolm X held forth in the Hilton hotel lobby all afternoon. I was absolutely mesmerised by him. So were a lot of others because there was a crowd of people around him all the time.
I remember that he called the March on Washington, the ‘Farce on Washington’. It gave me a lot to think about. Were we engaged in a farce? Had I spent the summer working on a cause that was nothing more than a show? I decided not.
I also remember the big flag about John’s speech. [He said] that if the violence did not stop, we would have no choice but to march through the South the way that General Sherman did, burning everything in its wake. [We] were quite angry about the demand that the speech be changed.
What I remember most is standing on the podium looking out at the 250,000 people. I felt emboldened because of the large number who came. I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.”
After Washington came the backlash
If Kennedy and the Democrats had hoped that a peaceful march would help relieve pressure from the movement for action they were mistaken.
Less than a month after the protest, “Dynamite Bob” Chamblis told his family in Alabama that he’d found the address of “the nigger girl that was going to integrate the school.” He boasted that he had “enough stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham.”
On Sunday 15 September, at 10.22 am, a deafening bang could be heard all over the city. A bomb outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had blasted a seven?foot wide hole through a thick wall behind which was a Sunday school class. Addie Mae Collins, 14, was tying the sash of her friend Denise McNair, 11. Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14, were doing their hair.
After the smoke cleared, and the heavy rubble lifted away, four charred bodies were found. One was decapitated, and their identities could only be established through their shoes and jewellery.
For the rest of the day, black people sought revenge and battled the police that so brutalised them. A white teenager shot dead a 13 year old black boy riding a bicycle and cops killed a black man trying to escape the fighting. Black men patrolled their neighbourhoods armed with shotguns.
Few who were in Birmingham that week believed the non-violence that had characterised the Civil Rights Movement was appropriate now—even reverends joined the self-defence groups.
The bombing was one sign among many that segregationists were prepared to fight back. Black people now supposedly had Washington and its laws on their side, but when it came down to it, neither were to be seen.
John Lewis, who had captivated the thousands at the Lincoln memorial just a few weeks before, now led car pools of Birmingham youngsters from the funeral to join a growing voting rights campaign in Selma, where hundreds would be thrown into jail without the state backing down.
Again, there was nothing but deafening silence from Kennedy.
The brutality of those determined to keep the South segregated, combined with the lack of a federal government response, led many in the movement to question their core beliefs in non-violence, integration—and the ability of racism to be legislated out of the system.
As the civil rights struggle began to give way to a fresh phase of anti?racism, known as Black Power, a new spirit of rebellion and revolution supplanted the belief in reform.
King abandoned his attempt to hold the centre ground. He stuck with non-violence until his death, but he broke with the Democrats after speaking out against the Vietnam War.
From then on he moved to the left and planned a second march Washington, this time for poor people. It was a march he did not live to see. King was assassinated while in Memphis to support a refuse workers’ strike.