A panoramic look at the March on Washington
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most glorious moment, the occasion of his celebrated “I Have a Dream’’ speech. But the march, like all historical moments, also belonged to much lesser-knowns.
Jerome Smith, for example, was a Freedom Rider from Mississippi who had been invited to a meeting on race relations at Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s Manhattan apartment a few months before the march. The secret huddle, arranged by the writer James Baldwin, featured committed celebrities such as Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte. But when the young activist was given the floor, he stole the show with his audacity, according to Charles Euchner’s “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington’’
Responding to Kennedy’s litany of claims for the administration’s record on civil rights, Smith said, “Mr. Attorney General . . . you make me want to puke.’’ The Kennedys had no idea about the extent of the nation’s institutionalized racism, fumed the young man. Even Baldwin was shocked. But within weeks, a chagrined administration was taking much bolder steps toward reform.
Meanwhile, during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, plans were underway for the first large-scale demonstration of African-American willpower in the nation’s capital. Organizer Bayard Rustin, a tactical genius who took a behind-the-scenes role in the civil rights movement (as a black, openly gay onetime advocate of communism, he had, it was often said, “three strikes’’ against him), hoped to attract as many as 100,000 people to the Mall at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
In his new book, Euchner, a Yale professor, retells the story of the buildup to that historic gathering through the voices and experiences of various participants, both legendary and humble. Like the late Henry Hampton’s landmark documentary series “Eyes on the Prize,’’ “Nobody Turn Me Around’’ takes its title from the gospel music that fed the movement.
At one point, Euchner reports, an organist played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ after failing to find her sheet music for “We Shall Overcome.’’ Such detail gives the book a transportive effect, even for those who have made close study of the civil rights era. The author informs us that some heat-stricken observers in the crowd had to be passed overhead “like hot dogs at a ball game,’’ and that a photographer in a helicopter tied rolls of film to sponges, dropping them onto the roof of his newspaper’s building for use in the afternoon edition.
Euchner’s true contribution is the panoramic view he affords of this pivotal event. King’s speech, which received a worthy literary reading in Drew Hansen’s 2003 book “The Dream,’’ comes almost as an anticlimax. Instead, the focus settles on the hard work and convictions of participants such as Rustin, the controversial young firebrand John Lewis, labor leader Walter Reuther (“the white Martin Luther King’’), the tough and tender Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and many more.
The march exceeded the dreams of even the most optimistic organizers. As many as 300,000 concerned citizens gathered on the Mall that day, boarding buses, driving, hitchhiking, and even roller skating to get there.
With many demonstrators unable to hear the speakers, the highlight of the day might have been Marian Anderson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,’’ or Mahalia Jackson ushering King onstage with her magnificent rendition of the traditional spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked.’’
However difficult the event may have been to pull off, however many hands were wrung over the possibility of clashes with police, the March on Washington ultimately “created the grandest image of dissent the nation had ever seen,’’ the author writes.
“[W]e must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force,’’ said King near the end of the long, hot day. Euchner’s dignified book reflects that kind of power.
James Sullivan is the author of “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.