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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The feeling was that after 1961 and '62--those really tremendous years of a lot of action, starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the lunch-counter sit-ins, followed the next spring by the Freedom Rides--it was really kicking the movement into a new gear beyond the more passive but tremendously courageous boycott of the buses in Montgomery. It was a new phase of the movement. And there was a feeling that we would not be able to break Mississippi. We would not be able to break the Deep South. That March on Washington in '63 was to be the culmination of all of this intense organizing and bring the country to a realization that it has to not be a regional battle. It has to not be a young people's battle. It really has to be a moral crusade for the country.

HOROWITZ: Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist who had played an instrumental role in developing the whole concept of nonviolence as protest action. He himself had been arrested about 20 times. He believed very deeply in something that A. Philip Randolph also believed in, and that is that the struggle for freedom in the United States had to eventually move to Washington, D.C., that it had to move to the center of power, to where the President and the Congress were--that no matter how many demonstrations took place in Montgomery and in Birmingham and places all around the South, until you could change the central government and have it legislate for all of the country, significant things wouldn't happen.

Randolph's contribution to the civil rights movement was a belief in mass action. Bayard added an organizer's ability, a concept of the strategy of mass action and also of nonviolence. He had a mind that went to every aspect of organization. No aspect of organizing was too small, and nothing was too large. He would worry about the kinds of sandwiches that would be there, the nature of the sound system, how one dealt with the President of the United States.


Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1963--66; U.S. Representative from Georgia

I remember so well the first meeting that we had with President Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House. We told him we were going to have a march on Washington, and you could tell by the body language of the President, he didn't like the idea of a march on Washington. He said, in effect, If you bring all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder?

BELAFONTE: The conversation that I had with the White House and with the Justice Department was to say, Look, you know, this will not erupt into violence regardless of what J. Edgar Hoover and others say they see in our mix. We have a very solid group of citizens here. And part of that image was that the most trusted of our citizens, the most highly profiled, the most revered as celebrity will be there. So you'll have Burt Lancaster, and you'll have Paul Newman, and you'll have Marlon Brando and people like James Baldwin and other writers, and Lena Horne.

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