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Inside the March on Washington: A Time for Change

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(The following is a guest post by 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 many Americans, the calls for racial equality and a more just society emanating from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, deeply affected their views of racial segregation and intolerance in the nation.  Since the occasion of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, much has been written and discussed about the moment, its impact on society, politics and culture and particularly the profound effects of Martin Luther King’s iconic speech on the hearts and minds of America and the world.  The Library of Congress exhibition “A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington” which opens on Aug. 28, is an opportunity to both celebrate the occasion and to renew the discussion about the ideals that underpinned the march and the broader struggles for freedom.

This post is the first in a series that will explore the “insider” perspective on the march as experienced by individuals who helped organize or in some other way helped shape the events leading up to Aug. 28, 1963.  In popular consciousness, the march has come to stand as the symbolic high point of the Civil Rights Movement and a testament to the fundamental goals and aspirations of all who participated in the broader struggle.  However, when seen through the eyes of those who organized and participated in the event, more complicated and nuanced appraisals emerge, regarding the march itself as well as the broader political, social and cultural context surrounding it.  In particular, those who had fought for racial equality and social justice “in the trenches” of the segregated South viewed the march as yet another moment in which to press their demands for permanent change, as well as a strategic opportunity to continue to fight against the status quo.  In the two following interviews from collections in the American Folklife Center, on-the-ground activists (who were college students at the time), reflect on the historical and political circumstances in which the march was planned.

Sisters Joyce and Dorie Ladner grew up in Mississippi and became civil rights activists as teenagers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a student at Jackson State University, Dorie was expelled for participating in a civil rights demonstration. She then went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “Snick”), a group founded in 1960 by college students who challenged segregation through sit-ins at restaurant counters, protest marches and other forms of non-violent direct action.  In the interview excerpt, she discusses the physical harm and brutality that front-line activists endured during the summer of 1963 – jailing, beatings and even murder – leading up to the march in August.  Joyce Ladner describes her shock and sorrow at hearing about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a friend since childhood, and her subsequent decision to move to New York to work with her sister and others to plan the march.

Courtland Cox was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he helped found the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) to protest segregation in the D.C. area. Members of NAG soon joined with other student groups across the nation to found SNCC. In these excerpts, Cox recalls internal tensions and differences among student activists over the tactics and strategies to use in pressing for social change, particularly the principles and philosophies of non-violent protest, which were espoused by John Lewis and other student leaders.  He then recalls how, in 1962, he and fellow Howard students Stokely Carmichael and Tom Kahn staged a protest in Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office because of Kennedy’s refusal to speak with them about fellow Howard student, Dion Diamond, who had been falsely charged and jailed in Louisiana for organizing protests there.  In Cox’s perspective, the hope that activists had for meaningful change after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the Kennedy election in 1960 waned and turned into outright confrontation by the time of the march, due to the federal government’s “go slow approach” to desegregation.


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