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March on Washington organizers look back

Recollections of some of those who helped make the massive March on Washington happen 50 years ago.

August 27, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton, congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, was active on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for the March on Washington 50 years ago.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, congressional delegate for the District of Columbia,… (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — As they look back half a century later, five organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom recall the thrill of the day — the sense that the cause of civil rights would advance.

Of course they remember the stirring "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the giant crowd gathered before the Lincoln Memorial. But they also recall the fear that the march might not come off, that people wouldn't show up. Here are some of their recollections of that day, Aug. 28, 1963:

Clarence B. Jones

Clarence B. Jones remembers the "I Have a Dream" speech well — he was standing 50 feet behind King when he delivered it.

Jones was a lawyer, speechwriter and confidant of King and had helped draft the speech he was to deliver at the march. As Jones recalls, King was reading the prepared text when gospel great Mahalia Jackson shouted, "Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream."

King set aside his script and began speaking extemporaneously.

"I turned to the person who was standing next me and said, 'These people out there — they don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church,'" Jones said.

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Jones, who with Stuart Connelly wrote the book "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation," noted that King had spoken about his dream earlier, but those speeches had drawn scant attention. This speech, however, was carried live on television, and King, perhaps inspired by the huge audience in Washington and across the country, rose to the occasion.

"I had heard and seen Martin King speak many times before," Jones said. "Never ever had I heard him speak like that. Nor did I ever hear him speak like that ever again."

Jones, 82, is a visiting professor and diversity scholar at the University of San Francisco and a scholar at Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.

He plans to be in Washington for the 50th anniversary.

Reflecting on the speech 50 years later, Jones said, "When I hear people say, 'Well, you know, much of the dream hasn't been realized' … that's true. There are cracks in the dream. But I have to remind people there are no signs anywhere in this country that say, 'Drinking fountains for colored only' or 'whites only.'"

Eleanor Holmes Norton

She had heard talk of plans for a giant march on Washington, but nothing had been nailed down and the question loomed: Could civil rights leaders pull it off?

Then, Eleanor Holmes Norton recalls, "I got the call, saying it is going to happen."

Holmes Norton, then a 26-year-old Yale Law School student from Washington, D.C., had been working in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "The call" was from the committee, asking her to come to New York to join the staff organizing the march.

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She went to work from the march's Harlem office. She remembers the address: 130th Street and Lenox. She recalls the challenge: "The march was an unprecedented exercise. Nobody could remember a mass march on Washington for anything, certainly not civil rights."

The day of the march, she boarded a plane to Washington, and before landing she could see the crowds assembling from the air — "enough to tell me the march would be successful."

Later, she took in the view from the Lincoln Memorial. "What was most impressive for me, after working on the march for weeks, was looking out from the base of the Lincoln Memorial itself and noting that I could not see to the end of the crowd," she said.

She recalls being moved deeply by one speaker after another. When it finally came time for King to speak, she thought to herself, "He had better be very good, because everything that went before him, I thought, was better than anything I had ever heard.'"

Holmes Norton, 76, went on to become the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that, she notes, was a key demand of the march. She is in her 12th term as the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate in the House. She will be participating in the anniversary, including using the event to highlight another longtime cause: D.C.'s lack of voting power in Congress.

Norman Hill

On the day of the march, Norman Hill accompanied civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the event, on a visit to the National Mall, hours before the march was scheduled to begin.

Hill, then 30, was New York-based national program director for the Congress of Racial Equality. He became staff coordinator for the march, recruiting people to participate and raising money to help pay travel costs. But on that hot August morning, he and Rustin found the Mall still largely empty.

"I remember Bayard being surrounded by reporters who peppered him with questions. 'Where are the people? Is the march really going to take place?'" Hill recalled.

DOCUMENTS: Coverage of the 1963 March

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