The dueling events on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom have ended, but astoundingly little is known about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that at several times threatened to derail the march where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Fortunately, a new book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner (Beacon Press) fills in some of the blanks. Although other books have chronicled the March on Washington , none provide the rich details contained in Euchner’s compelling book.
On May 15, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters, announced an Emancipation March on Washington , then scheduled for October. He called a meeting to enlist the support of other civil rights leaders: Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP; the National Urban League’s Whitney Young; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of SCLC; James Farmer, head of CORE and Jim Forman, the chief strategist for SNCC.
Together, with John Lewis, the new SNCC president replacing Forman, they were known as the movement’s Big Six.
President John F. Kennedy urged Randolph to cancel the march, but he refused. Failing to halt the march, Kennedy asked Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, to exert his influence over the gathering. “The White House asked [Reuther] to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action. And so he did,” Euchner wrote.
Randolph wanted Bayard Rustin to serve as director of the march. However, his detractors gave three reasons why Rustin would be a poor choice – he had been a communist, he was a draft dodger and he was a homosexual.
Randolph ended the stalemate by declaring, “I will not press Bayard on you gentlemen as the leader of the March on Washington. I will take it.” But Randolph would take it on one condition – Rustin would serve as his chief deputy. Every one accepted that arrangement.
Even after that tension had been eased, Martin Luther King’ speech – carried live on all three TV networks – was in danger of not being heard.
“Someone sabotaged the $16,000 sound system – state-of-the-art electronic equipment – to derail the March on Washington ,” the author wrote. The damage was done on the eve of the march and Walter Fauntroy, one of King’s top aides, scrambled at the last moment, eventually persuading a Justice Department contact to get the Army Signal Corps to fix the system on the morning of the march.
March organizers faced a larger problem when copies of SNCC Chairman John Lewis’ speech were circulated. In the prepared text, Lewis expressed opposition to an administration backed civil rights bill, derided those who urged patience and talked about “the revolution is at hand.”
There was strong objection to this passage: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousands pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.”
Patrick O’Boyle, the archbishop of Washington, scheduled to deliver the invocation, objected to Lewis’ speech and threatened to walk out, taking all Catholics with him, if the speech was given. John Lewis said he would deliver the speech as written or not at all.
Walter Reuther of the UAW objected and demand a vote on whether the speech would be given as written or changed.
By then, the Big Six had been expanded to a coalition of 10. And nine of the 10 voted with Reuther, only John Lewis abstained. The speech was toned down an hour before the march got underway.
As the last speaker, Martin Luther King’s would define the march. And he was allotted only seven minutes to do so.
Euchner wrote, “Now King wondered: Should I talk about the dream? Should the dream provide the emotional conclusion of the speech? King had spoken about a dream for months. At a mass meeting in Birmingham , he sketched out a vision of an integrated society, concluding, “I have a dream tonight.”
“King asked Wyatt Walker and Andrew Young what they thought,” the author wrote. “’Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’ Walker told King. ‘It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.’ Young agreed. King looked up but said nothing.”
Not until he gave his rousing speech.