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Inside the March on Washington: “Our Support Really Ran Deep”

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(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.)

March on Washington crowd at the Reflecting Pool. Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos. Prints and Photographs Division.

Fifty years later, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom triggers different memories for participants and observers.  It is safe to say that for most who witnessed it, in person or at home, the lasting images of the march are celebratory and triumphant. Popular accounts in the media reinforce those memories by centering on the determined and proud faces of thousands of ordinary people gathered peacefully in the nation’s capital to demand that the country live up to its founding principles of justice and equality. Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has become part of our collective consciousness, given the frequency with which it has been quoted, cited and replayed over the last 50 years.

Behind the scenes, organizers of the march and other notable figures in the movement experienced a complex range of emotions and confronted questions that became ever more pressing as the months and weeks leading up to the march dwindled to hours and minutes.  Apprehension and nervousness were present and so too were elation and euphoria. Mostly hidden from public view were the tensions among and between the coalition of civic and religious leaders and front-line activists as to how the march could advance their goals and meet their demands for social change and justice.

This is the third in a series of posts 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’s photo exhibition, “The March on Washington: A Day Like No Other,” opening on Wednesday, Aug., 28, 2013.

In the first clip, edited from interviews in the National Visionary Leadership Project collection, we hear the recollections of Rev. Joseph Lowery and Constance Baker Motley. Lowery was a Methodist minister in Mobile, Ala., when he became a civil rights activist in the 1950s.  Along with King and other ministers, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a leading civil rights organization. Lowery recalls the unease and uncertainty that he and other organizers felt before the march and their relief upon its peaceful conclusion.

Constance Baker Motley grew up in Connecticut and became a civil rights lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. She worked with Justice Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers to argue cases at the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education. She also traveled extensively across the country to meet with plaintiffs, gather evidence and work on local cases of civil rights abuses. In this interview, she reflects on the astonishment of movement leaders at the outpouring of feeling and involvement of so many “ordinary people” who participated in the march.

In the second clip, drawn from the Civil Rights History Project Collection, sisters Joyce Ann and Dorie Ladner reminisce about the events of August 28. The Ladners helped plan the march at its New York headquarters as representatives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), a national coalition of college-age activists, and were on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial for the march. For them, the days started off with a protest at the Justice Department over the case of colleagues in Americus, Ga., who had been jailed, weeks earlier, on false charges of sedition. The charges against SNCC’s Don Harris, John Perdew and Ralph Allen, and Congress of Racial Equality activist Zev Aelony carried a maximum sentence of death and SNCC chairman John Lewis’s speech later that day at the March criticized the Kennedy administration’s refusal to intervene in this and other deadly assaults on civil rights workers and community members in the South.  Joyce Ann Ladner recalls the overwhelming numbers of marchers and also the presence of several notable figures on the stage such as Marlon Brando and Lena Horne.

These brief excerpts represent only a small sample of the documentation of the civil rights movement available at the American Folklife Center and other divisions in the Library of Congress.


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