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Tuning in the March on Washington

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

Crowd scene at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the podium and the Lincoln statue in the background. Leonard Freed, photographer. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35510

For decades, the “March on Washington” has been represented in the media and collective memory chiefly by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which has been seen and heard an incalculable number of times since he gave it on August 28, 1963.

Less seen and heard though, are the many hours of broadcast coverage from that day that lead up to and follow that moment. While none of them may be as defining, cathartic or visionary as Dr. King’s address, a deeper exploration of the event through the surviving radio recordings is still rewarding, giving us the experience from several vantage points starting the day before and continuing for more than 24 hours. The broadcasts include coverage and analysis of the many details, large and small, of the March’s history, organization and purposes. They bring us closer to the whole experience of that day in its many parts, and perhaps to even grasp the feelings of those who were in Washington, DC that day on the Mall.

A. Philip Randolph, seated, and John Lewis, standing, with a group of men, in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. 1963. Stanley Tretick, photographer. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31572

Marchers came to urge passage of the Civil Rights Bill that President John F. Kennedy had introduced in June, though many among them thought if fell short of what was needed. In the “Lincoln Memorial Pledge” led by A. Philip Randolph that afternoon, Randolph would promise “to carry back the message of the march to my friends and neighbors back home and to arouse them to equal commitment and an equal effort.” Though March leaders met with members of Congress in the morning, and with President Kennedy in the early evening, the only tangible government accomplishment on their behalf that day would be the passage and signing of a bill that prevented a railroad strike from starting that night, which would have stranded more than 26,000 marchers in the city.

The Library of Congress’s collection of eyewitness radio coverage begins the day before, on a train filled with marchers that left Chicago, IL at 3:30 pm. WFMT radio host Studs Terkelwas on board the train, and there was plenty of time for him to interview in depth some of the more than 800 passengers. These interviews and others he conducted on August 27 and August 28 would become the basis for a ninety-minute program that Terkel would re-broadcast every year to mark the anniversary of the March. The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum have collaborated to digitally preserve and catalog thousands of unique and endangered sound recordings from the Museum’s Studs Terkel Collection.

Throughout the day, NBC radio and others presented frequent reports on the arrival of trains and buses, statements from officials, changes to the schedule, and interviews. Early on, reporters expressed skepticism that the number of marchers would top 200,000, as organizers predicted, but the official estimates grew steadily throughout the morning and early afternoon.

The most in-depth coverage came from the Educational Radio Network or ERN, who began its broadcast at 9:00 am, five hours before the start of the official program on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and signed off at midnight. ERN was the precursor of National Public Radio (NPR), and at the time consisted of a dozen stations, mainly in the East. WGBH-FMproduced the effort, and George Geesey anchored the broadcast from their Boston studios. The Archive of American Public Broadcasting(AAPB) is a collaboration between WGBH and the Library of Congress with a long-term vision to preserve and make accessible significant historical content created by public media

Bayard Rustin, pointing to a map of Washington, D.C., explaining bus route to march marshals of the March on Washington. 1963. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c18984

Stations affiliated with ERN also played interviews recorded earlier in the week. In one, George M. Goodman, a journalist with the Black-owned, Harlem-based radio station WLIB pointed out to Bill Price of WNYC that the march had been conceived more than twenty years earlier by A. Philip Randolph, founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro Labor Council, and a much respected leader. Randolph, age 74 at the time of the March, had first contemplated such an event in 1941, to protest the exclusion of African-American workers from defense plants in the run-up to this country’s entry into World War II. After some negotiations and concessions from the Roosevelt administration, Randolph did not pursue the idea further, but neither did he forget it, nor did his young associate Bayard Rustin, whom he would call on to organize the 1963 March.

The arrival of the Kennedy Administration twenty years later seemed to mark, if not a new era in Civil Rights, at least a new opening for change. In a 1992 interview for their book “Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Administration,” Congressman John Lewis, who was then a student at Fisk University, recalled for journalists Gerald and Deborah Strober:

…his very election sort of brought in something that gave you a feeling of hope and a feeling of optimism…In 1960, even before he was elected, someone asked candidate Kennedy, “What do you think about these young people sitting in?” And John F. Kennedy responded by saying that ‘”by sitting down they are standing up for the best in American tradition.”

He also recalled meeting President Kennedy for the first time:

June 21st, 1963, seven days after I was elected chair of SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] and it was in that meeting that Mr. Randolph said to President Kennedy, he said something like, ‘Mr. President the marchers are restless and we’re going to march on Washington.’ You could just look at President Kennedy, he didn’t like what he heard. President Kennedy sort of said something like ‘Well Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington won’t there be violence and disorder? How are you going to control them?’ And Mr. Randolph responded by saying ‘Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, non-violent march.’

The March was also a very broad-based one with many labor and church groups participating. Reporters estimated the crowd to be about 80% Black, but were still impressed by the diverse representation, and noted the participation of a group of Holocaust survivors carrying placards written in Yiddish. Some individuals impressed the journalists with the sheer determination of their attendance. Augustus Granville, a polio victim from Boston, watched from his bus. Ledger Smith roller skated all the way from Chicago. Bruce Marzahn bicycled from South Dakota.

“March on Washington” map showing an aerial view of the “proposed route of the civil rights ‘March on Washington’, which is scheduled for August 28.” Indicated on the map are an “Assembly Area” at the “Washington Monument”, the “Line of March” down “Constitution Ave.” to the “Lincoln Memorial”; also shows the locations of the “Reflection Pool, White House, [and the U.S.] Capitol.” 1963. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35543

The actual March covered the mile between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. At the Washington Monument that morning, gathering marchers were entertained and inspired by Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Len Chandler, Peter, Paul and Mary and others. At the Lincoln Memorial, where people began congregating soon after sunrise, George Epstein, a noted theater and radio organist from New York, entertained and led singalongs of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “We Shall Overcome.” Reporters marveled at the ability of the marchers to move peacefully en masse to the Lincoln Memorial for the main program of speakers and entertainers.

NBC and ERN both recapped and analyzed the events of the day in their evening programming. All were clearly impressed at the discipline, enthusiasm and general esprit of the marchers, but forecast a long, and frustrating path ahead for the Civil Rights Bill. Indeed, it was still bottled up in Congress at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination in November, and would only be passed the following year. Still, all felt that they had witnessed history, and we can be grateful that so much of their testimony can still be heard.

Interested in these radio recordings and other broadcasts of the March on Washington?  Don’t hesitate to contact reference staff at the Recorded Sound Research Center for more information about our audio collections.