(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, and Kate Stewart, processing archivist in the American Folklife Center, who is principally responsible for organizing and making available collections with Civil Rights content in the division to researchers and the public.)
For sisters Dorie and Joyce Ann Ladner, the highs of witnessing the flood of people on the National Mall, the celebrities, the media presence and the speeches on the Lincoln Memorial steps were short-lived. The aftermath of the March on Washington for the Ladners and fellow activists in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and other groups meant a return to confront racism in the increasingly tense and violent front-line communities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other southern states. If the activists were “under siege” before the march, the tension in the places where they organized only intensified afterwards.
In listening to insiders’ perspectives on the March on Washington in 1963 and considering subsequent historical developments, the gathering appears to have provided an important, but only momentary, pause in the deepening conflicts in much of the nation. Across all sectors of society, anxiety was rising over the pace and the form of social change that was unfolding. The days, months and years after August 1963 in America saw a parade of events – horrific as well hopeful – that raised fundamental questions about the character of American society, the legitimacy of the political structure and the precarious prospects for orderly change.
A brief snapshot of such symptomatic moments over the course of just five years would have to include John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963; the murder of “Freedom Summer” student volunteers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in June 1964; passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965; the murder of civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels in 1965; the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965; and the murders of Martin Luther King in Memphis in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy in June of that same year.
In the first excerpt in this video, drawn from the Civil Rights History Project, the Ladners remember the energy dedicated to planning and pulling off the march was almost immediately overwhelmed by the horror of the murder of four school girls in the bombing of
Sixth Street Baptist Church Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. This happened on Sept. 15, 1963, only a little over two weeks after the march’s culmination, and the Ladners recall the moment of contradiction between being at the march one minute and attending the funeral of the school girls the next.
In the final video excerpt in this series on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we draw on an interview with the Rev. Benjamin Lowery from the National Visionary Leadership Project Collection. Lowery, a close friend of Martin Luther King and a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, reflects on King’s pragmatic goals and worldly ideas for achieving fundamental transformations in American society. Lowery notes that King’s vision of achieving economic self-sufficiency and political equality for all Americans was aligned with an anti-militaristic stance and that these aspirations have become obscured by the focus on the “dream” that has come to define the man.