Going to the March
Participants Remember a Day of Surprise and Inspiration
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Aug. 25, 2003 -- They came by bus, train and, in at least one case, roller-skates. The people who traveled to the March on Washington in August 1963 made the journey from around the country despite threats of violence by members of the American Nazi Party and other racists. On Morning Edition, NPR's Juan Williams reports on the stories of some of the march's participants and organizers.
Those who came "wanted to connect with the passion of civil rights activists who had been beaten and jailed in Birmingham," Williams reports. "They wanted to stand with the memory of Medgar Evers, who'd been assassinated in Mississippi. They said it was time to take a stand against racial injustice."
Celebrities like Charlton Heston, Sydney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr. and Paul Newman took private planes from Los Angeles. But most people took buses.
Bruce Hartford, a student who took a bus from New Haven, Conn., describes his journey: "Somewhere between Baltimore and D.C. the sun began to come up. When you are in a bus like this at night you are in a closed world. You can't see what is around you. As the sun came up you see the whole freeway. All lanes completely jammed with buses. That's the moment we knew this march would be a big success."
Hartford remembers a crowd of well-wishers greeting his bus in Delaware with signs that said "Praise the Lord," "We Are With You" and "Carry It Forward."
Coming up along southern roads from Florida, Joy Bauer, a college student and rabbi's daughter, got a different response. "We were constantly harassed," she says. "People shouting obscenities, telling us where to go... people who didn't agree with what we were doing."
Organizers weren't sure how big a crowd the march would draw. On Capitol Hill, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were among the civil rights leaders meeting with a bipartisan congressional delegation. When the group walked out of the Capitol at noon, Lewis was shocked. He saw "a sea of humanity coming from Union Station. We got out of our cars, we were supposed to be leading the march but the people were already marching."
The size of the crowd -- which swelled to an estimated 250,000 -- led television networks to shift gears and show the march live. At 2 p.m., A. Philip Randolph, delivered the first speech. King began his stirring oration about three hours later.
Bauer says she was transformed by King's words. The speech "made me an activist. His whole speech made me realize that it doesn't matter what you believe if you don't act on it... "
Afterwards, King and other march leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House.
There were four months left in 1963. During that time, Kennedy was assassinated and Malcolm X gave a speech denouncing the march. Soon after, a bomb planted by segregationists killed four black girls at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.
"But on Aug. 28, as people went home from the march they radiated civic pride and idealism," Williams says.
Andrew Young was a King aide who later went on to become mayor of Atlanta and a U.N. ambassador. "You have to remember I was 31, Martin Luther King was 33 or 34, and we were young. We were like kids that had just won a football game, smiling and cracking jokes..."
Follow NPR coverage of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Aug. 22, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on the struggles to organize the March on Washington.
Aug. 26, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready,' the song inspired by the march.
NPR coverage of Martin Luther King's speeches and sermons
NPR coverage of other civil rights anniversaries
Web resources on the March on Washington