CNN adds to the growing list of tributes honoring the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with a new documentary that captures the first-hand accounts of people who witnessed the momentous event.
“We Were There: The March on Washington – An Oral History” will debut Aug. 23 and will be hosted CNN’s Don Lemon.
During the one-hour program, witnesses to the march and people who played key behind-the-scenes roles organizing the event discuss its impact on the progress of American civil rights.
The march came during the apex of the movement, amid the racial tumult of the summer of 1963.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations who spoke at the original event on Aug. 28, is the only one who remains alive.
Lewis, then-chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gave CNN an extended interview, during which he offers details of a meeting at the White House between then-President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and A. Philip Randolph, who lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, National Urban League chief Whitney M. Young Jr., Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality leader James Farmer and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who were among the principal organizers of the march.
In the documentary Lewis also describes the Kennedy administration’s obsessive concern regarding the march. In the uncensored version of Lewis’ incendiary speech, Lewis decried Kennedy’s civil rights bill as “too little, too late;” issued a call to continue marching “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did” and wanted to demand, “which side is the federal government on?”
Fears that Lewis’ speech would incite violence and alienate the Kennedys, however, led to an urgent, last-minute conversation with Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who urged the SNCC leader to soften his remarks:
“And, Mr. Randolph said, ‘John, we’ve come this far together. Can you change this? Can you delete that? Let’s stay together.’”
Rachelle Horowitz, a Jewish-American volunteer, describes how she and other non-African-American young people were drawn to their involvement in the Movement, and later the march. She began begun volunteering at just 17 years old with civil rights organizations following an accidental meeting with the charismatic Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, the architect of the march.
For the march, she played a key role in arranging transportation for demonstrators coming from around the country to Washington, D.C. – and Horowitz helped to recruit her friend, now- U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to become a march organizer.
Norton, who was also inspired by Rustin, explained why the march was necessary: “It was about the fact that each and every one of us was denied basic rights simply because of the color of her skin. And we needed somehow to demonstrate that to the country. Make them do something about it.”
Senior producer James Polk and producer David Matthews also assembled several other eyewitness stories in an in-depth feature about the March on Washington on CNN.com.
“We Were There: The March on Washington – An Oral History” can be seen Aug. 23 at 10 p.m., with repeat showings at 1 a.m., and 4 a.m., all times Eastern.