We Were There: Memories of the March on Washington

They planned and organized, led and inspired. From Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez to John Lewis and Julian Bond, 17 participants in the March on Washington recall that historic day

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Singer and activist

At the end of the Second World War, those of us who had participated in that conflict were under the impression that if we were triumphant over fascism and the Nazis, the men and women who returned from that conflict would be celebrated and honored by our nation. Many of us went off to that war and didn't have the right to vote. Many of us went off to that war and didn't have the right to participate in the American Dream. We didn't really think about this thing as a dream until Dr. King articulated it.


Freedom Rider

We did not see this as simply a civil rights issue. It was a human rights issue. We were then beginning to connect our struggle with the struggles of people all over the world and especially the struggles in Africa, and it took some people a little bit aback that we would say we are fighting for our freedom. Because as far as most Americans were concerned--most white Americans--how can you connect segregation here with the totalitarianism and the dictatorships of Europe? To me it was the same thing. And we were saying to the world, This land of great opportunity, this land of liberty has an asterisk beside it. It is a land of freedom for everybody else except black people. This great March on Washington was our way of calling attention to it.

BELAFONTE: As a kid, there was not much I could aspire to, because the achievement of black people in spaces of power and rule and governance was not that evident, and therefore we were diminished in the way we thought we could access power and be part of the American fabric. We who came back from this war having expectations and finding that there were none to be harvested were put upon to make a decision. We could accept the status quo as it was beginning to reveal itself with these oppressive laws still in place. Or, as had begun to appear on the horizon, stimulated by something Mahatma Gandhi of India had done, we could start this quest for social change by confronting the state a little differently. Let's do it nonviolently, let's use passive thinking applied to aggressive ideas, and perhaps we could overthrow the oppression by making it morally unacceptable.


March on Washington transportation director

A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the dean of civil rights leaders, had initially called for a march in 1941. He postponed that march because Franklin Roosevelt gave him partially what he wanted in an Executive Order. Randolph never stopped dreaming and knowing that he had to have one.


Field secretary, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

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