Inside the March on Washington: Speaking Truth to Power

(The following is a guest post by Guha Shankar, folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center and the Library’s Project Director of the Civil Rights History Project, a Congressionally mandated documentation initiative that is being carried out in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

Photographer James K. W. Atherton, UPI, White House News Photographers Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 gained mythic status at virtually the moment it was delivered, and its aura has only increased over the years. By virtue of its having been added to the Library’s National Recording Registry in 2002, it is also officially a national treasure, taking its place alongside the recordings of Robert Johnson, Cole Porter, Marian Anderson, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and dozens of other unique American voices.

In this interview from the Civil Rights History Project Collection, Clarence Jones speaks with David Cline of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program about drafting the famous speech. Jones, King’s speech writer and adviser, recalls in vivid detail the moment at which King departed from the draft to include, without any prior warning, the “I Have a Dream” portion of the speech. We also hear an excerpt from Rev. Joseph Lowery in an interview for the National Visionary Leadership Project Collection. Lowery, a confidante and colleague of King, reminisces about the enduring power of the speech in the wider context of the place and time in which it was delivered.

Aspects of the speech still provoke debate on a number of fronts. One line of thought is that the focus by audiences and commentators on the “dream” portion of the speech and its message of tolerance and inclusiveness diverts attention from King’s pointed criticism of the government’s neglect of its African American citizens. There is little ambiguity in this and similar other lines in the first part of the speech: “America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” King also delivers an explicit warning that the march is just the first challenge to the status quo: “Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

Other important figures in the movement who were on the stage with King delivered eloquent addresses of their own, including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther, the noted labor leader. In this next clip, we highlight a speech that was not given at the march, or rather a speech that had to be changed at the last minute because of the storm of controversy it caused on the podium. This was SNCC chairman John Lewis’s impassioned delivery in which he directly confronted the Kennedy administration for its lack of commitment to enforcing civil rights law and particularly Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department for its refusal to pursue and prosecute racist assaults on activists and black Southerners. The original speech, written by a committee of SNCC activists, included the rhetorical question, “I want to know, which side is the federal government on?” Another dramatic line in the speech was this: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

Patrick O’Boyle, archbishop of Washington and a Kennedy administration supporter and speaker that day, along with others in the coalition of unions and religious and civic leaders, threatened to withdraw from the march if changes weren’t made to the speech. The SNCC group that was attending the march initially resisted but was finally persuaded by A. Philip Randolph to make changes to the speech for the sake of march unity. But the episode still rankles SNCC members today, as both Courtland Cox and Joyce Ann Ladner attest in these interview excerpts from the Civil Rights History Project Collection.

Both speeches are available for research by making an appointment with the staff of the Manuscript Division in the Library of Congress. This post is the fourth in a series that provides audiences with the perspectives and memories of organizers about the march through video and audio interviews in the collections of the American Folklife Center. The series accompanies the Library exhibition, “The March on Washington: A Day Like No Other,” which opens today. You can read more about the exhibition in this blog post from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

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