'A People's History' Of The March On Washington The landmark 1963 civil rights march was more than just "I have a dream," says historian Charles Euchner. His new book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington, relies on participants and attendees to tell the story of that fateful day.
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'A People's History' Of The March On Washington

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

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

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One thing that was clear today is that the iconography of the 1963 march is just as powerful as it was 47 years ago. And a new book explores the stories of the lesser-known faces in those famous pictures. It's called "Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington."

Charles Euchner is the author and he joins me in the studio.

Charles Euchner, welcome.

Mr. CHARLES EUCHNER (Author, "Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington"): Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, I really love the book, because it's not just a chronology, it's actually more of a mosaic of characters. And it's interesting because you introduce us to so many people, and yet we experience the event through their eyes. And I want to know why you took that particular approach.

Mr. EUCHNER: Well, the March on Washington is really an iconic event, but it's been reduced to four words, "I Have A Dream," over the years. And those are, in fact, four of the greatest words ever uttered in American political oratory. But the reason they were so powerful was because of the people who were on the Mall. And so, I wanted to get down onto the grounds of the Mall and figure out who some of those people were and what they're experiences were.

CORNISH: Who of the average folks who went to the march that you discovered affected the way you view this event?

Mr. EUCHNER: Well, I keep thinking about a man named Hank Thomas. He lives down in Georgia now. And he was a student at Howard University who got involved in all kinds of civil rights activities as a student there. And he had been active in civil rights since the time he was a little boy. He would go into the library even though he knew he wasn't supposed to, because he was black.

And he became a big, strong, intimidating man and he would just stare people down whenever they came up to him. And that kind of physical strength and that moral strength, I think, is one of the things that made this movement so great is that these people embodied these values in their very being.

CORNISH: You talk about the behind-the-scenes conflict in the days leading up to the march. And I'm thinking in particular the battle between John Lewis. Today, he's a congressman.

Mr. EUCHNER: Right.

CORNISH: Back then, of course, he was this very fiery young chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But there were little battles between him and Patrick O'Boyle, who was the archbishop of Washington at the time. Tell us a little bit about what it was that was the nugget of contention.

Mr. EUCHNER: John Lewis wrote a speech that was very fiery, very strong and impatient. It express the impatience of youth in the country at the time.

CORNISH: Right, because these young people were fresh off the freedom rights.

Mr. EUCHNER: Right.

CORNISH: I mean, they had just come from this summer of traveling the interstate buses and getting beaten for it in many instances.

Mr. EUCHNER: And Lewis' speech really expressed that anger and that urgency. And 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 General Sherman, them's fighting words in the South.


Mr. EUCHNER: And so, Archbishop O'Boyle was really concerned about what he considered to be incendiary language. Now, when this debate all happened, this all broke the night before the march, on Tuesday night, the 27th. When this all broke, there was a big debate going out. They got Martin Luther King involved. They got A. Philip Randolph. They got Roy Wilkins. And there was a real split among the leadership. Some of the leaders said, you know what, these kids have a right to say what they want to say. Others said, we risk driving a wedge right in the middle of our movement.

CORNISH: It sounds like the march organizers really wanted to be very clear and, I don't know, palatable, I guess...

Mr. EUCHNER: Right.

CORNISH: ...to the American audience that was watching?

Mr. EUCHNER: Well, I think one of the key things about the march and the reason I think it was such a critical moment in history was that America saw the civil rights movement, as I said before, in all of its glory. And they saw how dignified these protesters were. They saw how clear they were. They saw how fair-minded they were. And King and others were really conscious of presenting the best possible face to the public.

And so King, especially, wanted to focus on two values. One was nonviolence. Whatever you do, never ever fight back. You lower yourself when you fight back. And, two, integration. We don't want to be a separate people. We want to become part of the American system. We don't want to defeat rights. We want to join them in a new nation. We want to join them in a new system or a new community.

And it was that middle of the road message, if you will, that kept everything together.

CORNISH: Did you get the sense there that on that day that people knew they were making history; that 47 years later, people would still be talking about that day?

Mr. EUCHNER: Well, that was one of the things that surprised me is that they really did. Because when they got there, the atmosphere was electric. And all kinds of people told me the same story in different ways. They would hear a phrase from, say, Martin Luther King something about, well, whether he was talking about the dream, for example.

When he used that phrase, all 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. They knew that they and America had never seen anything like that before. And a lot of people since then have tried to recapture that magic, but it really is a one-time-only thing.

CORNISH: Charles Euchner is the author of "Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington."

Charles, thanks for coming in.

Mr. EUCHNER: Thanks so much.

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