Remembering the great civil rights march of 1963

Participating in the great civil rights march of 1963 didn’t exactly change my life. But it made my course more fixed, helping inspire me to become a lawyer and, in my first job as such, to work for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That’s why I’ve written about the march on August 28 of almost every year I’ve blogged.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the march, I thought I’d pull together just about everything I remember about August 28, 1963. That way, it will all be written down in case I begin to forget things:

I had been favor of civil rights for Negroes (as we said back then) since 1958 when I did a short report for school about civil rights legislation proposed by President Eisenhower. So when I heard there was going to be a civil rights march, and that my father intended to participate, I wanted to be part of it. My parents agreed that I could go.

My best friend was going to come with us, but his mother vetoed the idea at the last minute. Her decision was understandable. There was much talk that the march might turn violent. President Kennedy reportedly shared this concern.

I was nearly certain there would be no violence. Why? Childish optimism, probably — the same sort of optimism that had convinced me there would be no war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. But my parents must also have been pretty confident there would be no violence on August 28.

My father and I left our home in the D.C. suburbs early. He wanted to stop by the Department of Labor, where he worked, to take care of a little business.

There was quite a buzz at the DOL that morning. A number of folks who worked in my father’s unit were preparing to march. A few of them had signs. We marched with my father’s colleagues, before splitting up during the speech-making phase.

As we began walking towards the march, the size of the crowd seemed impressive, but not overwhelming. But then I saw bus after bus after bus unloading people. Nearly everyone I saw getting off a bus was black.

This contingent contained folks of all ages, but my impression was that they were mostly young. What really impressed me was their dress — immaculate — and their demeanor — excited and determined, but fully under control. There wasn’t going to be any violence this day.

I hadn’t met people like the black marchers before. They seemed very different from the blacks I had encountered growing up in Southeast Washington, and there were no blacks in the Maryland suburb where I now lived.

At this moment, the civil rights movement became for me more than an abstraction. And I was more confident than ever that it would succeed.

The march portion of the day was thus incredibly uplifting.

The speech-making portion proved less so, at least until the end. By the time the speechifying began, the August heat and humidity were nearly unbearable. As for the oratory, it must have been good — these weren’t chumps who were speaking — but there was too much of it and it became repetitious, or so I felt.

After what seemed like a very long while, we decided to get something to drink. We found an enormous line and waited for the better part of an hour (as I recall) to get to the front of it. All the while, the speeches kept on coming.

We took our drinks and moved back towards the Lincoln Memorial. We managed to get closer than before, though we were still far away.

As soon as we found our new places, Martin Luther King began his speech. Did a hush fall over the increasingly restless crowd, as everyone now recalls? I think so. I know that very early in the speech, my father and I exchanged looks. This, we both understood, was greatness.

I remember getting a big kick out of a little-remembered line from Dr. King:

We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

My cousin from New York (who occasionally contributes to Power Line) had it in for New York mayor Bob Wagner. I figured that Wagner, along with every other liberal New York politician of note, was in the crowd. It amused me that King would take this shot.

I guess King went one-for-two on this portion of his dream.

King’s speech rescued the afternoon for me. The march ended on a wonderful high.

We then headed for a downtown hotel where my father’s old socialist friends were gathering. On the way, I overheard several young, white D.C. policemen sharing their impressions of the day. They seemed almost as enthusiastic as I was.

Each noted that they had witnessed no violence or impropriety. But one officer shocked his companions by saying that he had seen a few members of the Clan. He quickly clarified that he meant Frank Sinatra or some of his show-biz pals. This was before they became known as the Rat Pack — a more politically correct but still unappealing handle.

When we got to the hotel, I was physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausted. Instead of listening in on the political discussion, as I normally did, I bought a copy of a football magazine, found a quiet corner of the lobby, and read a preview of the 1963 football season.

Not soaking up the impressions and comments of my father and his socialist friends remains my only regret from the day.

I have never been more optimistic about politics than I was that day. Fifty years later, I think there would be agreement across the political spectrum that my optimism was excessive.

But today I want to note the extent to which the optimism was justified. Less than a year after the great march, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which, among many other things created the EEOC for which I would later work). More historic legislation followed, and over the next decade or two, barriers to equal opportunity were smashed. Today, we have a black president.

The emerging black middle class continued to grow. I feel confident that nearly all of the young blacks who poured off the buses on August 28. 1964 became part of that middle class, if they didn’t belong to it already.

Today, I have very limited optimism about race relations in America going forward. I hope that’s mostly a function of being 64 years old, not 14.