'A People's History' Of The March On Washington

The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

Aug. 28, 1963: Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators walk down Constitution Avenue during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his new book Nobody Turn Me Around, Charles Euchner chronicles the peaceful civil rights demonstration though the stories of people who were there. Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive
Nobody Turn Me Around
Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington
By Charles Euchner
Hardcover, 256 pages
Beacon Press
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

Early on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was empty apart from a few sightseers. But by midday, close to half a million people were massed peacefully among the monuments and museums for what became one of the most important events in the civil rights movement: the March on Washington.

What most people remember about that day, says author Charles Euchner, is the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave. "It's been reduced to four words, 'I have a dream,' over the years," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And those are, in fact, four of the greatest words ever uttered in American political oratory. But the reason they were so powerful was the people who were on the Mall."

Euchner's new book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington, tells the story of the march through the eyes and voices of the people who helped make it happen.

One of those people was march organizer Bayard Rustin, a veteran civil rights activist who had been a controversial choice to head up the preparations. "He was considered to have three strikes," says Euchner. "One, he was gay. Two, he was a war evader; he didn't serve in World War II. And three, he had once been a member of the Communist Youth Party in the U.S."

But labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who'd come up with the march idea, insisted on Rustin. And Rustin accomplished a seemingly impossible task: Given just two months to plan, he dealt with everything from transportation to bathroom facilities to wrangling celebrity guests, and he pulled it off almost without a hitch.

While Rustin handled the logistics, other march organizers battled over the message. Fiery youth leader John Lewis — now a congressman — had written a barnburner of a speech, expressing the frustrations of young people who'd been risking their lives on the freedom rides and who felt that the leaders of the movement were going too slowly.

Charles Euchner i i

Charles Euchner's previous books include The Writing Code and Little League, Big Dreams. Isabel Chenoweth hide caption

itoggle caption Isabel Chenoweth
Charles Euchner

Charles Euchner's previous books include The Writing Code and Little League, Big Dreams.

Isabel Chenoweth

"He used words like 'revolution,' and he said at one point that, 'We will lead a Sherman's march and destroy segregation ourselves if we have to.' Now when you talk about Gen. Sherman, them's fighting words in the South," Euchner says. Washington's Catholic Archbishop, Patrick O'Boyle, threatened to withdraw his support if Lewis left those passages in his speech.

Euchner says the conflict between Lewis and O'Boyle split the leaders of the march. "Some of the leaders said, 'You know what, these kids have a right to say what they want to say,' and others said, 'We risk driving a wedge right in the heart of our movement.' " Ultimately, Lewis allowed parts of his speech to be rewritten, and Euchner says the overall insistence on calm, nonviolent action was what gave the march its power.

"America saw the civil rights movement ... in all of its glory," Euchner says. "And they saw how dignified these protesters were, how clear they were, how fair-minded they were. And King and others were really conscious of presenting the best possible face to the public."

And on that day, as people stood in the hot sun watching King give his most famous speech, Euchner says they knew they were seeing something special. "Across the Mall, in little pockets of the Mall, people would shout out to each other, 'I have a dream!' 'I have a dream!' And they felt the electricity, and they knew that it was different, and that they and America had never seen anything like that before," Euchner says. "A lot of people since then have tried to recapture that magic, but it really is a one-time-only thing."

Excerpt: 'Nobody Turn Me Around'

Nobody Turn Me Around
Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington
By Charles Euchner
Hardcover, 256 pages
Beacon Press
List price: $26.95

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that readers may find offensive.

Planning for the March on Washington had begun back in New York, when Bayard Rustin set up the March on Washington headquarters in Harlem. Rustin rented a building on West 130th Street and Lenox Avenue for $350 a month. Immediately, he raised a banner — NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS: MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM: WED., AUG. 28TH — that stretched across the building.

That building had no real decor. It was just a run-down brownstone full of broken-down institutional furniture, typewriters, and hundreds of cardboard boxes of buttons and brochures. When local newspapers reported that pictures of John F. Kennedy and crucifixes lined the walls, someone went around and took them down.

"I simply don't know how they're going to do it," one Washington cop said. "We spend nearly a year planning for the inaugural parade. They're trying to pull off something much more complicated in [just] weeks." Another cop said: "It's just like they were getting ready for D-day in Normandy."

After a total of $146,917 had been raised — two-thirds from donations, the rest from the sale of souvenirs and tickets, and from concerts and other events — the march expenses totaled $133,229. The biggest expenses were printing leaflets and bulletins ($16,626), paying salaries and payroll taxes ($13,382), providing transportation for the marshals ($12,931), and printing buttons and pennants ($11,277). The Washington operation cost a total of $29,563, including $18,838 for sound equipment.

Bayard Rustin's first rule of management was to make lists of every conceivable task. If somebody thinks that something can possibly go wrong, come up with a specific solution, and put it on the list. Organizing anything — a massive march, a union picket, a training program, a newspaper — succeeds or fails because of details.

All day long, Rustin and his team crossed off completed tasks and added new tasks to the three- and four-page lists:

Briefing of Marshals
Sy does press release on cars to Negro press
Telephone for top command
Find out when office tent goes up
Wire Mahalia Jackson
Call Joe Rauh on insurance and inspection
Clarify with Washington police Rockwell's intentions
Small national office at the Statler

And there was more, much more. Most tasks were mundane. But these countless small actions made possible the orchestration of a historic event.

Always, egos had to be soothed. Politicians, writers, movie stars, singers, and financiers needed attention. Josephine Baker's manager, for example, wrote to Phil Randolph: "We trust that Miss Baker's appearance and participation in the 'March' will not go un-noticed and that proper and adequate accommodation at the 'March' will be accorded her." The Hollywood group sent a list of names for President Kennedy to meet regarding film and TV hiring practices, as if Bayard Rustin were a White House scheduler. Other notables — like Fred Shuttlesworth and James Baldwin — got upset when denied slots on the speaker lineup.

"All I can say is, thank God I don't have to deal with the Hollywood plane," Rachelle Horowitz said. Bayard Rustin gave that job to Ossie Davis. "He took care of prima-donna land," Horowitz said.

Senators Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey sent long letters fretting about the need for an ample supply of chemical toilets. "Without a good supply of toilets," Douglas warned in an August 8 letter, "some horrible things will inevitably happen which will bring discredit on the march and marchers . . . I cannot exaggerate the need for a big supply of these." Everyone laughed about the "latrine letters." But Rustin added a line to his to-do list: Chemical toilets — How many?

Rustin's second rule of management was to assign trustworthy people to do these thousands of tasks. Rustin didn't care so much about training or even experience. He wanted brains and persistence. When he asked Rachelle Horowitz to organize the buses to get at least a hundred thousand people to Washington, she hesitated.

"Are you crazy? I don't know anything about transportation," she said. "I can't drive."

"My dear, you're compulsive," he said. "You won't lose a bus. You won't lose a person. Don't worry, you can do it, and I want you to do it."

So the compulsive Rachelle Horowitz got to work. She sat on the phone, calling bus companies and local organizers. She made a card for every bus that confirmed. She didn't book any buses — that was left to local organizers. They also put up the money and recruited marchers. But she explained how things worked and tracked progress.

When Rustin got a letter from someone like Mitchell Crane — a high school student in Rustin's hometown of West Chester who said he wanted to organize buses — he passed the note to Horowitz. Horowitz called Crane, told him what companies to call. And when Crane ran into trouble renting buses — however progressive the town's Quaker heritage, the owners of the bus companies did not approve of the march — he could always call on Horowitz for help.

Horowitz worked on the second floor with Joyce Ladner. The two women answered calls for each other. "Yes, this is Joyce," Rachelle would say, the Jewish woman from Brooklyn becoming a black woman from Mississippi to keep the operation moving briskly.

In the week before the march, Horowitz persuaded the Metropolitan Transit Authority to run subways on a rush-hour schedule after midnight, to make sure New Yorkers could get to their buses. And she got the bridge and tunnel authorities to pass out leaflets with march information at tollbooths.

Rustin always looked for ways to simplify operations. Giving staffers clear authority was one way. Another way was simplifying the march concept. Turning the march into a one-day event eliminated the need for overnight accommodations. Rustin also scrapped plans for marchers to meet congressional delegations all around Washington when police raised concerns about the chaos of getting them to the Mall from separate meeting places. When marchers from Delaware and Pennsylvania went ahead with plans to meet delegations, Tom Kahn panicked. "I suspect this is simply the top of an ugly iceberg," Kahn told Rustin. But Rustin was cool. Easier to let a couple groups do things their way.

Sometimes, Rustin just let ideas die. Ossie Davis wrote a skit for movie stars to perform. Too complicated; forget it. A company wanted to produce "NAACP freedom bells" for sale as a fund-raiser. Too messy; forget it. A student suggested outfitting blacks in Ole Miss T-shirts, a dig at "seggies" from Mississippi. Don't involve us. Only simple ideas requiring no work got the okay — like when a Hawaii songwriter donated five hundred orchid leis to major figures at the march.

The march office crackled from about ten each morning until two the next morning. Rustin operated in a small room, just off the dark and narrow hallway on the first floor. A sign saying "March Office One Floor Up" drew some visitors away from Rustin's office, but most knew he was there and burst in regularly.

One hundred or more often crammed into the building — there were usually at least forty or fifty. Typewriters clacked, phones rang, mimeograph machines thwacked, staff and volunteers murmured and shouted up and down the stairs. People smoked all day — wherever you went, you walked into a blue haze — and drank too. Blyden Jackson brought brown moonshine in Pepsi bottles.

A few volunteers came and went. Volunteers got assigned to senior organizers, but those organizers didn't always have the time to train or track their charges. One volunteer named John Williams, assigned to the march's press liaison, Sy Posner, drifted away after ten days. He concluded that he was not part of the civil rights "club" — "with the right kind of views, background, and aspiration" — and so got "shunted aside." But he wasn't bitter and he went to the march, getting close enough to watch Martin Luther King and other speakers up close.

Someone was clever enough to install the latest intercom system, but people forgot to use it. They yelled up and down the stairs, like parents calling teenagers to dinner.

"Rachelle?" Rustin would call up from his perch in the first floor's bullpen. "Rachelle, dear, I need . . ."

"Would you use the intercom?"

"Rachelle!"

"Use . . . the . . . f — — . . . intercom!"

Relationships got inverted. Elliott Linzer, a shy, awkward seventeen-year old high school student, supervised volunteers from the United Federation of Teachers. Higher-ups sometimes felt a need to assert their authority over easygoing volunteers. At one meeting, a volunteer chirped his thoughts and recommendations, only to get a rebuke. You're doing the Jimmy Higgins work," the senior staffer said. Jimmy Higgins was the universal symbol of drudge work — typing and stuffing envelopes, fetching sandwiches, running to the post office, taking out trash — a term used both to honor the toiler and put him in his place. The comment stung.

But the Jimmy Higgins work mattered. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, stacked in cardboard boxes, had to go to the right places. Details mattered. The March office sent out different versions of brochures for blacks and whites. "You're not going to get a whole bunch of whites to catch a bus at three in the morning to go to Harlem or Bed-Stuy," Elliott Linzer said, "but they will go to Forest Hills or Park Slope."

Every so often, a celebrity stopped by. Ossie Davis visited. So did Bob Dylan. Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers came by. John Lewis did too. Necks craned, Rustin or Cleve Robinson or Tom Kahn danced over to greet the visitor, and everyone got a five-minute break. And then . . .

"Come on, now, get back to work," Rustin called out in his matronly, high-pitched voice. "We're not having a nigger fish fry, you know!"

Rustin's manic joviality created a sense of urgency, even crisis. "He wanted us to live that couple of months as if every single day might be the last day of your life," said Norm Hill. "You had to accomplish as much as possible every day."

At the end of every workday, Rustin convened a staff meeting. Everyone was invited — and expected — to attend, from the heavies like Tom Kahn and Cleveland Robinson down to lowly interns like Peter Orris and Elliott Linzer.

Rustin let everyone else talk. Staffers reported on how many people had written requesting brochures and buttons. They reported on how many buses had been booked for Akron and Albany and New York. They raised questions about security arrangements or coordination with Walter Fauntroy's operation in Washington.

As others talked, Rustin doodled. As he scribbled notes and crossed out completed tasks, he drew squares and triangles that looked like mazes. Peter Orris, a brainy high school student, was convinced that the doodles helped Rustin think through the relationships between the many-layered tasks. He got Rustin to autograph one of his doodles.

Sometimes, like a herald from the past, Rustin suddenly interrupted the chatter with an old spiritual, his voice sweet and high pitched:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long ways from home,
A true believer
Sometimes I feel like I'm almos' gone
Way up in the heab'nly lan'
True believer

Sometimes he sang alone. But he also called out songs everyone knew. Always the teacher, he told them where the song came from, what it meant. He talked to them, for example, about the syncopation in "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" and the call-and-response patterns in "Swing Low." He sang the old spirituals with new words targeting Bull Connor, George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Jim Clark, the most notorious symbols of segregation in the South.

As Harlem slept, the music of slaves and sharecroppers, sit-inners and picketers, gospel choirs and a capella college ensembles, filled the muggy night air.

Excerpted from Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner. Copyright 2010 by Charles Euchner. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press.

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