The March on Washington
IN THE EARLY 1960S, civil rights activists like A. Philip Randolph began to evaluate early efforts to improve the rights and quality of life for Black Americans in education, employment, and justice. Randolph and a group of colleagues recorded the struggle of the labor union movement to advance economic justice and collected data regarding job discrimination. Key questions they asked: Had Brown v. Board of Education really made a difference in the education of African American children? Did the FEPC protect Black Defense Department employees during the World War II? In 1941, Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized and planned a march on Washington as the next protest strategy, but Randolph had made agreements with President Roosevelt in the late 1930s and early ’40s that resulted in canceling that civil rights march. It was not until 1963 and with much persistence from the leadership in the Black community that President Kennedy lent support to a civil rights march. Along with people all across the nation, we in Minnesota began making plans in the spring of 1963 to participate in the historic march on Washington. The national organizing committee was very much aware of Hubert H. Humphrey’s powerful speech in 1948, which had established Minnesota as a state where civil rights were taken seriously. As president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, Matthew Little was asked to coordinate the Minnesota delegation. Matt did not expect to be honored with such a daunting task and his initial thought was to say no. There were a lot of violent, horrible things happening to civil rights workers in the South, and he was worried about that happening in Washington. But his desire to serve our people won out. He asked me to assist him and Marjorie Wynn, who had called the first Minnesota group together to discuss the march, and we began making our plans. We consulted with local civil rights and religious groups to determine who should go and raised the $5,000 we would need to charter a plane for our delegation. Thankfully, the religious community generously helped us with that effort, as did many individuals—some of whom attended the march while others could not.
The national committee gave us strict instructions on how to handle ourselves. Everyone who attended had to sign a contract stating that they would remain nonviolent: we could not retaliate if we were attacked. I worried about the warnings that we were receiving, but it did not dissuade me from going. I wanted to be engaged in the mission of the march. Some people who had planned to join us declined to sign the contract, stating that they weren’t sure they could be nonviolent if attacked. Nevertheless, they were willing to help us raise the funds to go. In addition, because the theme of the march centered on jobs and freedom, the national NAACP had other requirements as well. Each delegation had to include so many women, so many unemployed—individuals who were part of the groups that represented the issues we were fighting for. Thomas Johnson, a well-known medical doctor in our community, was one of the people who couldn’t sign the pledge for fear that he wouldn’t respond nonviolently if attacked. He donated his plane fare so that someone without means could join us.
We ended up with fifty-eight people in the Minnesota delegation: Black people and white people, Christians and Jews, young people and older people, all of us making up a group that consisted of individuals who represented the issues behind the march. There were others who traveled separately by car, bus, train, or air and were not identified as part of the official Minnesota delegation. Our departure was scheduled for 3 a.m. on the morning of the march. I was late getting to the airport due to some last-minute family things but thankfully arrived just in time. I think I would have died if I had missed that trip. When I arrived at the airport, I saw Barbara Cyrus, one of our outstanding supporters and a writer for the Minneapolis Spokesman, who was there to wish us “God’s safety and good luck.” She wasn’t able to go to D.C., but we all knew her heart was with us.
On the plane we sang freedom songs and discussed our excitement for the march as well as the frightening things that had occurred in the weeks leading up to the march: Alabama Governor George Wallace’s vow to defend segregation forever; Dr. Martin Luther King’s arrest; the dogs and hoses that were turned on civil rights workers; the assassination of activist Medgar Evers, who had been gunned down in his driveway; and the threats and attacks by neo-Nazi skinheads, which seemed to be going on everywhere. All of this added to our anxiety. We were nervous but more determined than ever.
When we arrived in Washington, D.C., we were escorted to waiting cars that drove us to First Congregational Church where we would be able to rest and eat breakfast before the march began. We were surprised to see that the streets were empty and silent. It was so quiet that we began to fear that the march was going to fail. At the church we were ushered into the basement. We freshened up and were soon joined by Minnesota dignitaries Hubert H. Humphrey, Don Fraser, and Eugene McCarthy, all who came to greet us and give us encouragement before the march began. Minneapolis mayor Art Naftalin flew in with us and joined the group of welcoming Minnesota politicians when we arrived.
When we left the church and began walking toward the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, we were happily surprised to see that crowds of people were already there. It is well known that more than 250,000 people attended the march, making it the largest demonstration ever seen up to that time in the nation’s capital, and one of the first to have extensive television coverage. We stepped in behind the large, boisterous New York delegation. We were blessed to have a bright sunny day, but it was so hot and humid that even in our excitement we couldn’t help trying to find a shady spot once we made it to Lincoln Memorial.
Soon after we arrived, Marian Anderson began singing the national anthem, and the crowd joined in. We placed our right hands over our hearts and sang along, forgetting about looking for a shady spot. The program continued with a lovely invocation by the Very Reverend Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington. A. Philip Randolph followed, reiterating why we were there—to stop discrimination and demand jobs and freedom for all. I couldn’t help crying when Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie, stepped up to the podium and gave a tribute to the women freedom fighters. She named Daisy Bates, Diane Nash-Bevel, Mrs. Herbert Lee, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson, and as she spoke the women in the crowd gave a nod to the women who fought for freedom in our own communities. There were many other speakers—John Lewis, Walter Reuther, James Farmer, Rabbi Uri Miller, Whitney Young, Matthew Ahman, Roy Wilkins, Rabbi Joachim Prinz—interspersed with musical selections by the Eva Jessie choir. And then the program took an unexpected turn that would forever change the history of the march.
It is well documented that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, were friends, a friendship that began when Miss Jackson appeared in Montgomery, Alabama, at the request of Reverend Ralph Abernathy to support the bus boycott, the event that launched the civil rights movement. She had sung by Reverend King’s side many times since that day, and by the time of the March on Washington, he had become quite comfortable telling her what to sing and she was just as comfortable suggesting directions that he should take in his speeches. So it was no surprise to anyone who knew them that he asked her to sing “I’ve Been ’Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” to lead into his speech at the march.
When she finished the song, Miss Jackson took her seat directly behind Dr. King and listened while he spoke. At a critical point during his speech, she decided to intervene. Recalling a theme she had heard him use in his earlier speeches, Miss Jackson said out loud, “Tell them about your dream, Martin.” Films of this speech show that at that moment Dr. King left his notes behind and improvised the next part of his speech—the historic section that is still lauded today.
I don’t think anyone expected the type of speech Dr. King delivered that day, or the lasting impact it would have across the nation and the world. I began to cry, and when I looked around I saw tears flowing from many eyes as far as I could see as the crowd felt the impact of his words. Soon after the march, President Kennedy called segregation immoral and began paving the way for a comprehensive civil rights bill, which would clear several hurdles in Congress and go on to win the endorsement of House and Senate Republican leaders that fall.
Another of the national committee’s instructions was that marchers were to leave Washington before sundown, for our safety. But the feelings of joy and hope stayed with us. We felt that we really could change the laws and make a difference for our people. Upon our return to Minnesota, our delegation organized a local March on Washington committee. The intent of the committee was to follow up on the placards carried during the march—jobs, housing, education, and so on—and to be cognizant of efforts in our state honoring the promise of the march.
One Friday in November 1963, the week before Thanksgiving, Mayor Naftalin and I were having lunch at the café in the Grain Exchange building, where City Hall employees frequently went for lunch. Art had become mayor of Minneapolis in 1961, about a year after I was hired at the Urban League and while I was deeply involved with the fair housing endeavor. He was the first and only Jewish person to be elected as Minneapolis’s mayor. Art was such a brilliant and caring mayor, and wanted to work with the NAACP and the Urban League in our civil rights and social justice work. I believe Alpha Smaby may have had something to do with my meeting him. Alpha knew of Art’s background and his work with Hubert H. Humphrey, as well as his concerns about diversity and equality. My first meeting with Mayor Naftalin was very timely because that same year President Kennedy had established the Affirmative Action program.
Our brief walk to the restaurant had been pleasant. Winter hadn’t set in yet, but we knew it was on its way. Snow would soon be falling, the winter winds would be howling, and the outdoor temperatures would be nearly unbearable. But that day the sun was shining and people were wearing light fall coats and jackets. I don’t remember the focus of our meeting that day, but I will never forget what happened when we were almost finished with our lunch. One of the mayor’s aides approached us and excused himself politely. “Pardon me, Mayor.” I looked at the man and saw panic in his face. “The President has been shot,” he said through tears. “It sounds serious.”
The restaurant grew silent. I stood up and walked to the window as if I might hear that a mistake had been made. “Come, Josie,” said the mayor. The streets were unusually quiet as we hurried back to his office to confirm the terrible news. It was as though no one in Minneapolis could believe what had happened. I called Chuck and asked if he had heard, then I picked up my children from school. The drive home seemed slower than usual. The quiet desolation that took over the restaurant and the streets of downtown Minneapolis permeated the entire city.
At home, Chuck and I wept while we watched the news reports on television. We took turns calling our families and tried to explain to our children what had happened and why we were so devastated. Our daughters were too young to understand the depth of this loss to our people. They were not yet old enough to understand what Black people had endured for so long or why African Americans all over the country believed that Kennedy would be our champion. Based on the actions he had already taken in his brief tenure as the thirty-fifth President of the United States, we placed tremendous value on him and what we expected he would continue to accomplish on our behalf. Kennedy’s assassination knocked the legs out from under us. We didn’t know if his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would continue the work Kennedy had begun. We worried, too, about Jackie and their children. What would become of them?