In his "I Have a Dream" oration, Martin Luther King urged the throng to "go back to Mississippi, go back to Louisiana . . ." and actively push for civil rights. Here are a few stories of the trips home and the marchers' efforts to continue the movement.
Bill Perry felt a sense of triumph after the day was over.
“People felt like that they had pulled off this march. There was feeling of victory and there was no violence, no activity—all of our fears had been unfounded. You even allowed yourself to believe that something’s going to happen because of this.
“We now felt Martin had made it possible to really believe. We really could overcome. We really believed. What he held out for us was possibilities. The possibilities could be real. It really was a dream. We didn’t have any real feeling that the civil rights movement was going to accomplish anything for black folks; this was, after all, America. There was also the feeling of being really, really, really, really tired. We had been on an emotional trip. It was just an overall success. For a lot of us who had worked in civil rights movement, successes were few and far between. You counted victories whenever they happened. This was a big victory. This was wow. Something good had really happened. You probably felt better than you anticipated feeling.
Harry Boyte got a more complete sense of the day from TV coverage.
"In my father’s hotel room, just after the march, I saw it on CBS. It was just what I saw in subsequent interactions. It was the interaction between King and the crowd. It wasn’t simply the speech, but the way people were responding and standing and electricity and the power.
Susan Brownmiller, the Newsweek reporter, got a line about the crowd’s reaction into the magazine’s coverage.
“When Martin Luther King said “I Have a Dream,” a guy next to me, a black guy, said, ‘Dream on! Dream on!’
Franklin Fung Chow found himself overwhelmed by what happened in Washington. He knew something big happened but could not figure out exactly what.
"When I came back, I gave a sermon after I came home and I said, ‘I really can’t tell you want happened.’ Even today, there are people still debating what was the significance of the march. Everyone remembers Dr. King’s speech.
Walter Fauntroy may have done more to leverage the March on Washington to produce long-lasting change. As the Washington organizer for the March, Fauntroy was able to collect the pledge cards that marchers filled out. When he won election as nonvoting delegate to Congress, he sent letters to the marchers asking them to pressure their congressmen to give the District of Columbia home rule.
"All I was thinking about at the time was to collect [the cards]. We sealed them airtight, then typed them into a robotype. My staff spent first few months putting that together so I could write these people about home rule, using franking privileges. That’s what ended congressional abuse of the district.
Jocelyn Jerome was skeptical but hopeful that the March would produce real results.
“I remember saying, ‘Is this really going to change anything?’ The Kennedys weren’t particularly concerned about civil rights. After that, the Birmingham church bombing [in September], I felt so angry and so upset.
John Handy, the jazz saxophonist, remembers a difficult trip home to San Francisco.
"The trip home, some of the people who went with us sold tickets to other people. After the march, there was a drunk guy who was trying to get a couple girls. There were some parties. On the trip home, there was a guy who threatened me. He just went nuts. He wasn’t violent, he just had a nervous breakdown. We had to stop in Chicago and put him in an ambulance.
Karen Lawson, like most other marchers, was more deeply committed to the movement after August 28, 1963. She continued to revere the work of Martin Luther King.
"A couple years later, I went to Penn to hear Martin Luther King and I will never forget that. I remember looking around and there was this sense of the country coming together in some small way. There were lots of mothers and fathers with children. That was a very inspiring evening. He was on the short side but he came across as very smart and well spoken and passionate about his cause, very genuine about what he was saying. I used to always think, growing up, that if more people got to know black people, they wouldn’t feel that way. That was my sense of King. If people get to hear him, they can’t help but think what he’s asking for is right.
Matthew Little, who organized marchers from Minnesota, rallied his fellow travelers to create a permanent civil rights group. And then he got jazz great Louis Armstrong to endorse the effort.
“On our way back when everyone was on a high, I asked the captain if I could use the PA system. I asked everyone if they felt the way I did and there was an overwhelming yes. I didn’t think we could leave it there, and right there we founded the Minnesota March on Washington committee and decided that we would organize our young people to send them to Mississippi to be a part of that movement. We did some fundraising. …. We kept a bunch of buttons and sold them to churches and other gatherings for fundraisings.
“We met Louis Armstrong at the airport and alerted the media, tried to get him do a song. He didn’t sing, but did endorse us and he did in front of the camera. Afterwards, I took him to the hotel.
Mitch Crane, who organized marchers from Bayard Rustin’s hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, grew to appreciate Rustin’s role more as the years passed.
"After the march was over and I went to high school and became an activist, I wanted to being Bayard Rustin to West Chester to speak. They allowed him to come, but they only allowed him to speak at lunch time so nobody would be taken from classes. Bayard carried a cane; he was very sophisticated and distinguished. He was funny and clever. I was intrigued by him.
"There was a speech contest in West Chester High School—the Webster Meredith contest—and Bayard won it when he was in school. I entered but did not win. In his speech he described lynching in graphic terms. When the Black Power movement happened, he ran down the streets and tried to save white people from being hurt. He really believed in integration, and he was called a communist but my grandparents who really were communists said he sold them out. I knew some of his relatives who had disowned him because he was gay. They pretended they didn’t know him until he became a rock star and all of a sudden he was there.
Elsa Rael remembers some marchers wanting to hold onto the moment.
“People didn’t even want to leave. They walked slowly. There were block after block of buses, thousand of buses, coming from all over. On the way out, people’s houses’ the windows were thrown open, people were on stoops waving and laughing and singing and the joy. Beautiful black faces were smiling at us and [waving] banners and flags and kerchiefs. People were so happy. It was a long ride out of the neighborhood. It felt like we did something good. People on the bus were singing and laughing.
Rita Bender also remembers a sense of excitement about the possibilities for expanding the movement.
"I was tired, but there was a sense of euphoria. It was a very compelling day. The King speech was a great speech. What created this sense of excitement was the crowds of people. There really was this sense that this is a movement, there are people from all over who want the same thing. By 1963 there were people aware things were happening in different places. There is something quite remarkable about seeing your fellow human beings all in the same place. What’s telling about the photographs is the mass of humanity. All these people decided they had to be in the same place at the same time.
Jack Takayanagi, who brought teenagers from his church in upstate New York, was struck by people’s desire to clean up after the march. When he got ome, he redoubled his efforts on behalf of civil rights.
“At the end of the march, someone announced, ‘Before you leave, be sure that everything is in order, that the banners and papers are not littered all over the place but piled in a neat pile.’ People were waking around picking stuff. I can still see the pile near where we were sitting. They didn’t want to let people think we just wrecked the place.
“Back home in Utica, we worked a great deal on housing. We ran into a lot of racial tensions, absentee landlords. There was a group of us, we confronted the city council on it. We didn’t have the human rights commission, and we started that. Once that was established, we began to address some of these problems. It helped to raise the consciousness of the city that these problems did exist. Yes, we have a problem.
Toby Stein did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the March on Washington until the next day when she bought a New York Times.
“I remember getting out of subway at 72nd street and got The New York Times and you saw this huge picture of this crowd. How wonderful it was to have this unusual experience of being anonymous. I never had this experience of being anonymous. I didn’t want to get something because I was my brother’s sister. It was so good just to have been a body because that day was really accomplishing something.”
D'Army Bailey speculates that the March on Washington could have had a bigger impact if demonstrators were allowed to confront Congress and the administration directly.
"It could potentially have had the same impact as the Kennedy assassination. The same fire that LBJ was able to use to provide new thrust, it would have happened earlier. It would have forced the Kennedy administration to take a much more decisive stand. We weren’t worried about backlash. We still had enough momentum and outrage about what was happening the South. We were trying to up the volume. We felt that the more protest and street action—like when we picketed that bank, across the street from the Treasury Department—would have changed things faster.
Elliott Linzer, like many March veterans, finds the lasting legacy of the March in the election of Barack Obama as president.
"Forty years ago I could never have imagined a black getting elected president. This is hard work. Lots of hard work. I’m proud of that.
Norman Hill thinks the civil rights movement lost its momentum with the decision to take the campaign north.
"The biggest mistake the movement made was] going North the way we did. There was a meeting of Andy [Young], Martin, Velma [Hill], myself, and one or two others. We were talking with King about what should be his next campaign. This was in 1965 or 1966. Bayard gave the most compelling articulate analytic presentation about why King should stay in the South. Now with blacks having the right to vote, King has to play a role in mobilizing that political potential that had been untapped and unused. He could in fact turn the South around and he was needed to be the leader and motivator and catalytic agent for that. That was clearly one of the best presentations I’ve heard Bayard make.
"King did not respond to Bayard’s logic, but said, ‘Well, I had a message from God that I ought to go to Chicago.’ Bayard turned to me and said, ‘I don’t have anything to say to that.’ Bayard was a master strategist and tactician and here he was—only God could trump Bayard."