The death of Congressman John Lewis earlier this month, and his role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, has brought back vivid memories of that historic demonstration.
I was there.
In 1963, Lewis, a civil rights leader from young adulthood to his role as the “conscience of Congress” that lasted to his death at the age of 80, was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was one of six major civil rights groups which helped organize the march, and whose leaders spoke at it. Lewis was only 23 years old, the youngest speaker on the program.
Far better known was Martin Luther King, whose “I have a dream” speech was destined to become an American classic.
The nation watched the event with a sense of wonder; Washington residents watched it with a sense of foreboding.
History remembers the March on Washington as a remarkably successful, peaceful demonstration. Its estimated participation at between 200,000 and 250,000 marchers made it one of the largest demonstrations in Washington’s history.
Its peaceful outcome was something that nervous Washingtonians barely dared hope for.
It took place in the middle of my two-year assignment in the active Army, and I watched the event unfold on a small black-and-white television set in my unit’s dayroom in southeast Washington.
Though the Army had contingency plans, most units kept a low profile.
As the day of the march approached, Washingtonians grew increasingly apprehensive at the prospect of such a huge crowd of largely dissatisfied citizens gathering to stage a protest.
It would have taken only one hothead — black or white — drawing a weapon, or even throwing a punch, to turn a peaceful demonstration into bedlam of unprecedented proportions.
Downtown Washington was shut down on Aug. 28, the day of the demonstration. My drive to my unit, normally a 30-minute task in bumper-to-bumper traffic, took 15 minutes. I saw only one other vehicle on the road: a city bus. It had one passenger.
Little realized at the time, about one-fourth of the marchers were white.
As the march began, a group of about 50 “American Nazis” (I cannot bring myself to use the term without putting it in quotation marks) attempted to mount a counter-demonstration from one of Washington’s suburbs. Cops swarmed over them like mosquitos on a Summer evening, and that put an end to what turned out to be the day’s only threat to public order.
Martin Luther King was the keynote speaker, and others on the speaker's platform later reported that he chose to depart from his prepared script and launch into his “I have a dream” oration, which was quickly recognized as the highlight of the day.
Not generally known until later, John Lewis’s prepared speech was so fiery that other speakers insisted that he tone it down.
For those of us who lived in Washington, the highlight of the day was that it remained a peaceful demonstration from start to finish.
As such, it became a turning point which launched several advances in the civil rights movement.
For the record, the March on Washington took place in 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. During his two-year tour of active Army duty in Washington, the American Navy imposed the blockade of Russian ships headed for Cuba, the March on Washington took place and President Kennedy was assassinated. It was an exciting time to live in the nation’s capital.)