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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of our nation.


Martin Luther King was right. The march for jobs and freedom, often known as The March on Washington, took place 50 years ago this year. Hundreds of thousands of people thronged along the National Mall under the gaze of Abe Lincoln and his memorial. Among those covering the events was a man shooting for the Magnum Photo Agency named Leonard Freed.

BRIGITTE FREED: It was a self-assigned story. Nobody asked him to do the story.

SIMON: That's his widow, Brigitte Freed. She remembers arriving in Washington, D.C. with her husband early on a hot August dawn when the streets were still empty.

FREED: We passed by the White House and then we went slowly to the Mall and people started coming and coming and it was endless.

SIMON: Leonard Freed's black and white photographs have a timeless quality and have now been collected in a new book, "This is the Day: The March on Washington."

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I think what we see is the remarkable recording of the silence dignity of the masses of Black people and their allies.

SIMON: Michael Eric Dyson is an author and professor sociology at Georgetown University.

DYSON: You know, people who had to wear their Sunday best, they were prim and proper, and it showed in the calm, quiet beauty of their faces.

SIMON: But there was also controversy. Dyson says the Kennedy Administration didn't' want the March to take place. There were also deep divisions among the marcher's organizers over the message of the march and who should get to speak when.

DYSON: You've got the infighting between those who thought hey let's put Martin Luther King Jr. last because there's only one station that's going to broadcast this march, and by the time he gets on, the cameras will have turned away. But alas, what happened was the movement was so powerful that not only did CBS remain, but ABC and NBC joined.

So what they intended to be an afterthought became the central moment of the movement, and that was King's, of course, great oration.

SIMON: It was the first time most Americans heard the Reverend King's speak in more than a brief news clip.

DYSON: Martin Luther King Jr., having a sense of history, began by reading his speech. "Five score years ago, the great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand in today, signed..."


JR.: ...signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

DYSON: With that glissando stretching his words out. The Emancipation Proclamation, but he's reading.


JR.: As the great beacon light of hope for millions of Negro slaves.

DYSON: And Mahalia Jackson on the side of the stage noticing King reading, and for him, maybe a C-plus speech. For him, anybody else A-plus. But for King you're about a C-plus right there buddy. So Mahalia Jackson hollers: Tell him about the dream, Martin. And so he casts the paper down and then he begins that powerful run.


JR.: So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

SIMON: Brigitte Freed was in the crowd.

FREED: It was a wave. It was going like a wave over the heads and the strongest thing I ever, you know, ever heard.

SIMON: Did you know it was a great speech immediately?

FREED: Immediately. Everybody was silent. There wasn't no other noise. That's why you could hear the waves and you could hear it so clearly. Yes.


JR.: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain...

SIMON: Although most Americans were hearing those words for the first time, Dr. King had actually delivered some of the same phrases in his Detroit speech a couple of months before.

DYSON: That having been said, doesn't mean that his charisma wasn't extraordinary. Arguably the greatest American we've produced. Lincoln stood with the bully pulpit of the presidency to make his claim to the bloodstained future of this nation. King is a private citizen, not reaching 40, stood at the sunlit summit of expectation and articulated a dream as golden and as powerful now as it was then, and Leonard Freed captures those people who King felt were worth fighting for.


UNKNOWN CHORUS: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

SIMON: Brigitte Freed has given her husband's photographs to the Library of Congress and you can see many in the new book, "This is the Day: The March on Washington," and on our website. By the way, most of the photographs are of the marchers. Dr. King is seen from a distance, a great voice within a great crowd.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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