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 spirit in the whole setting was so exciting, so positive, so hopeful that something was going to happen. We felt very enthusiastic about everything. We were happy to wait and find a seat, and delighted when we found a seat up front so we could see the procedure and we could hear the speeches. It turned out to be an extraordinary experience for all of us--for the children and for Jack and I--because we had never worked on anything of that magnitude or seen that kind of support for equal opportunities, which is what we had been hoping for for many years.

LEWIS: I was 23 years old at the time. I remember A. Philip Randolph introduced me as he had introduced others. He stood and said, "I now present to you young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee." I stood up, and I said to myself, This is it. I looked to my right: I saw hundreds and thousands of young people, many of the young volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I looked to my left, and I saw many young people, young men, in the trees trying to get a better view of the podium. I looked straight out. And I started speaking.

It was an unbelievable feeling to see hundreds and thousands of people, black and white, sitting together, cheering. Many young people, men, women, they're taking off their shoes and putting their feet into the water to cool off. It was a hot day. It was very hot in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.


Singer and activist

I remember it was hot. I remember what I was wearing. I remember singing. And I remember that ocean of people. I'd never seen anything like that. I remember the electricity in the air.


Singer and activist

We sang "If I Had a Hammer." They knew it, and they sang. And the moment was created not by the three of us in a performance but by a quarter of a million people gathering together and singing with us and saying, This moment belongs to us together. That's what singing together can do.

BELAFONTE: On the platform when these highly profiled, successful artists performed, it wasn't just that they were sympathetic and very much involved in the ideals of the struggle, it was that that's who they really were. They were artists, and they were superstars, and you could be both a powerfully received force and you can say the right thing. You can have a moral point of view.

BOND: I was giving Coca-Colas to the movie stars, and I can remember till my dying day giving a Coca-Cola to Sammy Davis Jr., and he said, Thanks, kid.

YARROW: Joyful doesn't really describe it for me. It was like the physicalization of love. It was ecstatic perhaps, but it was not giddy and silly or "let's have a good time." It was a far deeper kind of joy. It went beyond joy. It was hard to describe, but it was the antithesis of fear, and it propelled us all into another channel in our lives.

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