March On Washington Was Day to Remember and Relive— as the Struggle for Equal Rights Continues

The March on Washington, August 28, 1963

A version of the article below was first published in August 2013, as the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom approached.

On the night of August 27, 1963, I boarded a bus in Boston for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The passengers — two-thirds African American and one-third white — were mostly strangers to one another.

I, a white Harvard graduate student in history, sat next to Henry Armstrong, a 50-year-old black building contractor.

Though we would spend the next day in the hot sun of Washington, we were each dressed in a coat and tie — determined to give the lie to those who declared that a trouble-making rabble was descending on the nation’s capital.

At that time, in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, there were hundreds of counties, some majority black, where few if any blacks could vote.

And in the Boston from which we departed, discrimination was an everyday fact of life. As a volunteer in Boston’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), I learned that among Boston’s four largest banks, every single teller was white. Virtually the only “qualified” black employees were custodians. Not a single trash collector for the city of Boston was black: Irish American and Italian American contractors controlled the work and hired their own.

During the long nighttime ride, the bus was quiet. But when dawn broke, a young woman led in singing songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Around 7 a.m. we stopped at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Baltimore, where church ladies treated us to a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage and coffee. And on we went, arriving at the Washington Monument in the late morning.

I stationed myself below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The first speaker I remember was John Lewis, now a congressman but then a 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was truly a hero, a person who risked his life on behalf of justice. Later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Before dark, we reassembled to return to Boston. The press reported more than 250,000 marchers, but everything had gone smoothly. There were no confrontations, and the police and demonstrators were all on their best behavior.

Henry Armstrong and I compared notes. I realized the Congress of Racial Equality might help black employment in Boston by urging businesses to hire contractors like Armstrong. He agreed to help start a list of reliable contractors that CORE could promote. It was a modest effort — but it moved in the right direction.

When we arrived back in Boston in the wee hours, exhaustion was the dominant mood. Yet we believed something important had happened. We sensed that the force of justice was irresistible. The day’s message — that wholesale violations of Americans’ rights must end — was not just inspiring; it was accurate.

We believed something important had happened. We sensed that the force of justice was irresistible.

Soon President Lyndon B. Johnson would use his political gifts to channel the moral force that the civil rights movement had mobilized. Johnson and the Congress outlawed segregation through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and protected voting rights by law in 1965.

By arousing the consciences of Northern voters, and reminding Congress that Americans cared, the March on Washington was a step toward those laws.

It seemed as if the civil rights revolution of the 1960s would fulfill the promise of equal voting rights. But today, the question is open.

Voting Rights Threatened

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the most important section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many states, from North Carolina to Texas, have been moving to restrict the right to vote. Kris Kobach of Kansas is leading, with U.S. Vice President Pence, a commission ostensibly concerned with voting “integrity” but so baldly, politically infused that voter suppression is the recognized aim. Gerrymandering is as rampant as ever, and the Supreme Court must decide whether politicians can lawfully select — via redistricting — not only the likely party but also, disproportionately, the race of their constituents.

Before 1965, poll taxes, grandfather clauses (you were eligible to vote if your grandfather was eligible to vote), and arbitrary literacy tests blocked minority voters. Today, new barriers to registration and new laws close voting places where minorities live; such measures “tax” voters by requiring them to take time from work to vote, and to produce forms of identification not uniformly available. As a result, minority voters must often stand for hours to cast their ballots, or find their names missing from the rolls.

The Struggle Continues

These new tactics are not the same as the old ones. But they are members of the same family, aimed at preventing people from voting because their votes challenge an establishment.

In addition to voting, the cause of equal rights faces battles from policing to socioeconomic opportunity — with inequality at dizzying heights — to immigration policy and religious freedom. Black lives matter, as that movement importantly insists, and so do the lives of Jewish and Muslim Americans and immigrants, with the KKK and neo-Nazis asserting old hatreds in new ways.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the original march, on August 28, 2013, I was back in Washington with a diverse group of marchers renewing the effort to move the United States closer to justice for all of its people. Four years later, that long struggle continues. 

Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book is Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War.

His previous books include Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865; The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870; and the co-authored microhistories The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America and Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic. A version of this article first appeared in the Hartford Courant. Twitter: @RichardDBrownCT. Medium: Richard D. Brown