DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, the nation's capital was buzzing with activity as the city braced for the March on Washington on Aug. 28th, 1963. All this month, through our partnership with the Race Card Project, we're looking back at that moment. Thousands of people took the day off to participate in the march. Today, NPR's Michele Norris introduces us to two people who were on the clock.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: With hindsight, we now know the March on Washington was a peaceful event. But we recently spent time with two former D.C. police officers who recall that there was no guarantee that things would go smoothly.
MARTIN NIVERTH: My name is Martin H. Niverth - the H is for Henry. I came on the police department in March of 1963, about five months before this event.
JOE BURDEN: My name is Joe Burden, a retired Washington, D.C., police officer. Prior to that, I was a United States Marine.
NORRIS: Joe Burden is black. Martin Niverth is white. Both were rookie cops back in 1963; living in a city that was highly segregated, and working for a police force that was also segregated.
NIVERTH: If you walked a foot beat, you walked with another white officer. If you were assigned to a car, you were assigned to a car with another white officer.
BURDEN: I do recall, at one time, they passed out 3-by-5 cards. They instructed us: Write down whether you would like to work with an integrated partner. The no's were overwhelming. So it was quite obvious that as far as they were concerned, they didn't want to work with us. And I guess they really had very little use for Martin Luther King.
NORRIS: For a segregated police force, a mass demonstration calling for racial equality presented challenges. The police department readied the force by stressing the need to maintain order and the dignity of the force. After all, this was just months after Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor had unleashed dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators. Though 19,000 federal troops were just outside the city, police officers in D.C. were not instructed to wear their riot gear.
NIVERTH: Before I went to work, I shined my shoes, cleaned my brass, checked my revolver, and made sure I had my badge and my wallet.
BURDEN: No special equipment, just regular uniform that we would use if we were walking the beat.
NORRIS: Everyone worked that day; no vacation days were granted. The entire force gathered early at the police garage downtown, for instructions.
NIVERTH: It was a hot, humid summer day in Washington, even at 6 a.m.
NORRIS: Both officers recall that the instructions were fairly simple: Be alert. Be safe. Keep calm. Officer Burden was assigned to the Lincoln Memorial.
BURDEN: Well, actually, I ended up on the steps right behind where the speech took place with Martin Luther King. (Laughing)
NORRIS: Officer Niverth was way at the other end of the Mall.
NIVERTH: They assigned me with another officer. I was instructed to patrol along the Mall, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th Street, which is a pretty far distance from where the central activities were going to take place that day. And you do what you do any other day, you know. Just walk the beat, make sure things are orderly.
NORRIS: His partner assignment, though, was anything but routine.
NIVERTH: I don't know why they did this. They assigned me with another rookie, and he was a black officer. His name was William Wallace. Actually, we were both from the Second Precinct.
NORRIS: What did you see that day?
NIVERTH: You could see they had a purpose, but they weren't angry. I didn't feel threatened as a police officer on the street. In fact, they fed us.
NORRIS: They fed you.
NIVERTH: Me and Wallace walked over, and they asked us if we wanted something. And they gave us a small plate. And as I recall, there might have been piece of chicken and some fruit, maybe. I'm not sure what else.
NORRIS: That family that gave you the plate of food - the chicken and the fruit...
NORRIS: ...was that a black family?
NIVERTH: Definitely. They weren't local, but I'm not sure where they were from.
NORRIS: Chicken was good?
NIVERTH: Didn't hurt me.
NORRIS: Martin Niverth and his fellow officer that day, William Wallace, may have had shared ambitions for growth in their department, but the signs and the speakers reminded Niverth that the playing field was not level, not in 1963.
NIVERTH: We weren't walking the beat in our area too long, and he says, Marty, he says, I hope you think this is an important day, that it's important to us. And I said, yes, I do. I recall that. So, I would say was it different for them? Yeah, he was thinking about it probably more than me.
NORRIS: As speaker after speaker called for equality and justice, officer Burden felt somewhat torn as a rookie cop.
BURDEN: Being a police officer, you know, not too long out of the police academy, you're thinking more of the law than you are thinking in terms of how you fit into the big picture. So, I was thinking in terms of, you know, if you're shutting down traffic and what not, that's a violation.
NORRIS: Yet the marchers were fighting for rights Officer Joe Burden did not have. Was there a moment that day where you looked out from your perch behind the stage and looked at that massive crowd and realized that, as a police officer, you were there to keep the peace, but as a man, the rights that they were fighting for were rights that were denied to you?
BURDEN: Very impressive. When I saw those signs and placards and whatnot that the people were holding, then I realized, you know, they were speaking about me, as well. I was thinking back on the times when I couldn't go into the five-and-dime store to drink a Coke at the counter, and I couldn't go to the theaters downtown and things of this nature.
NORRIS: Was there any point where you, as a police officer, wished that you were in the crowd holding the sign yourself, that you could have marched for those freedoms?
BURDEN: Yes, yes, yes, yes. When I think back, yes, I wish I could have marched.
NORRIS: Burden and Niverth both said that the March for Jobs and Freedom was the most peaceful and most festive mass demonstration they'd ever seen in all their years of police work. The march helped usher in a new era in the police department: more promotions, more integrated partnerships, more recruiting officers of color and women. Two years later, Burden became one of the first black officers assigned to an integrated patrol car. Niverth became lifelong friends with William Wallace, the officer he was partnered with at the march in '63. His six words about race relations in America today...
NIVERTH: Progress, but long way to go. I chose those six words because I guess I was under the false impression that civil rights causes were resolved. Until some of the recent things have been occurring, and state legislators about voting rights, etc.
NORRIS: Officer Burden spent much of his police career working with young people. His six words...
BURDEN: The youngsters are making the changes. The changes are coming about with the youngsters. They're the ones that you see are interacting with one another. You see them marrying one another. You see them doing away with all discriminatory practices. You see them opening themselves up to everything.
NORRIS: Officer Joseph Burden and Officer Martin Niverth both patrolled the March on Washington 50 years ago. They now are both retired from the D.C. police department, but they still live in the Washington area.
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GREENE: NPR's Michele Norris is curator of the Race Card Project. And for more memories of the 1963 March on Washington, go to npr.org. This is NPR News.