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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ORROCK: I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was in the presence of courage. So often you read about courage in books. To be face to face and side by side with people who had made profound decisions to put at risk their own personal safety, their job, their home, the ability to support their family to go up in the face of the police-state atmosphere of the Deep South in order to get change was an overwhelming thought to me--the raw courage of people, to face police jailing you and beating you to the ground for the right to vote. So that was an overwhelming thing. I was so moved to think of the courage that it took for the people I was marching with to do what they were doing with their lives in very dangerous places, breaking the color line.

THOMAS: I was 21 years old, and I had this tremendous responsibility of helping to get this thing done. By the time the program started, I couldn't get as close to the Lincoln Memorial as I wanted to, because I had a job to do. Our job was to keep walking around, make sure there are no problems, because we knew of some of the things the FBI had done in the civil rights movement, putting in an agent or provocateurs.


March on Washington attendee

Many of the speakers were people whose names were familiar, but you never would get the chance to see them. You're talking 50 years ago, so we didn't have the prominence of media. There wasn't any instant replay or quick exposure. So when you saw names like Harry Belafonte--he was listed as one of those speakers--or you saw the names of the civil rights leaders, and there were many of them who spoke before Martin Luther King, you were proud to be there and glad to be there.


Seminary classmate of King's

I just felt for King as he sat there waiting to be introduced. I knew that the way they listened to people who were making speeches in rallies like this one, there was always somebody in the background trailing that speech with printed material. And I knew that somebody had a pencil following every word to see whether King would make a mistake or not repeat what he had placed there on paper. And I couldn't get to him to wink my eye or say to him, "Mike"--as we called him during the days of seminary--"come on, come on, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it."


Speechwriter for King

A lot of care and thought was given as to the kind of speech that he should give. We knew that people were coming from all over the country, and they were looking for political leadership. They were looking for direction, particularly after Birmingham. Black fury had broken out in 36 states and over 200 cities, and people were coming. So we felt that Dr. King's role was to give them political direction and moral reaffirmation of the validity of our struggle.

Now, among his advisers, there were those who were suggesting, as Ralph Abernathy would say, Martin, people are coming to the March on Washington because they're coming to hear you preach!

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