The people who organized and attended the March on Washington came from every kind of community in the U.S. Most of them had battled for civil rights for years. The comments below trace the political consciousness of a handful of March participants.
Charlie Geter was a deejay for WDAS, the leading black radio station in Philadelphia. He traces his political consciousness to his military service in the Korean War. The war taught him about the racism of the American system and gave him the skills to combat it in media.
"I was involved with psychological warfare during the Korean War. We were combating communist propaganda with American propaganda. I wrote two newscasts a day, had them translated into Korean, Mandaran, Cantonese. I wrote various little plays, acted out on the Air Force’s network, about the life experiences of Americans in Japan.
"We had some ugly Americans over there. There were a lot of ugly Americans who tried to treat the Japanese like shit because they beat them in the war. It affected me the rest of my life. In the 1940s they tolerated and in the 1950s they started rebelling and in the 1960s the station owners got the message. And the ones hiring blacks were not going along with it."
Courtland Cox was a student at Howard University. By the summer of 1963, he was a major player in civil rights. He was an assistant to Bayard Rustin, whom A. Philip Randolph named to coordinate the planning of the March on Washington.
"My sense of the race problem started when I was 13 or 14. I was born in the U.S. but grew up in Trinidad. Given the preponderance of people of color there, I was probably more aware of race, that but not in the way it’s understood in the U.S. The difference there was between the Indian population and the African population. But it wasn’t antagonism, it was just difference. They liked roti and curry and dell and we liked pigeon peas and rice.
"When I came to the United States when I was 12, the people I grew up in the projects in the Bronx, they were very clear about the hostilities that existed between blacks and whites. At that point, it was an environment where young whites, especially males, would have their cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves, like James Dean, with the ducktail. It wasn’t profound differences that we understood in the South. It was a lot of cultural differences and it centered on sex and women and the fears around that.
"As I grew older and came to Washington, the sense of race and the disparity and lack of opportunities and barriers became more profound. I entered the movement after I came to Howard University. People had just finished the sit-ins in North Carolina and men and women at Howard were engaged in sympathetic marches. It was a highly middle-class approach. We went to the White House demonstrating in our best clothing, with ties on. Some of our people—like Stokely Carmichael and Dionne Diamond, went South. They were arrested [and charged with] criminal syndicalism.
"We were involved in trying to be supportive of that. After that we started engaging in our own activity in Washington, to challenge the segregated situation here in Washington. When we came here many of the houses and properties were segregated. Blacks couldn’t buy in certain areas, couldn’t drive buses. They said blacks would steal so they couldn’t try on clothes. The city was controlled by three commissioners, who were controlled by Congress. [The head of the House of Representatives committee on District affairs was] John McMillan of South Carolina, who treated Washington as a plantation.
"Then we moved to get the students to go to Route 40, [where eateries and other establishments would not serve black travelers]. Then we went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where it was like being in Mississippi. We had, I think, a greater sense of what it meant to be African-American—the music, jazz, lifestyle—but we also understood what it meant to be poor. I was one or two people to be graduated from high school. Kids were being destroyed, people having babies, people smoking weed and feeling there was nowhere to go. One guy said I’m going to the Army because I’m tired of seeing the same old faces.
"Growing up, we had a list of dos and don’ts for dealing with the white people. It was just part of the air. It was not something I understood, just something people understood, folks told them about it. Then when you saw the lives of blacks or Puerto Ricans, the crushing poverty and the ability to go nowhere, and the violence of it—that’s probably what was most outstanding.
D’Army Bailey, who grew up in Memphis, got involved in civil rights as a student leader at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"I was one of the student leaders on campus, the freshman class president, in the largest all-black university in the country. While I was focused on being a student, the sit-ins occurred in Greensboro and students on southern campuses began to plan. We were enthusiastic when the students were released. In short order, Southern University expelled these students, responding to pressure from the state government of Louisiana.
"So our attention quickly shifted from civil rights to fighting the administration of Southern to get students back in school. They asked us to call off the boycott, and things quieted down after a few weeks. Meantime, in the summer of 1960, I was one of two delegates to the National Students Association convention. Curtis Gans had endorsed the sit-in movement, and a lot of conservative schools wanted to rescind that. So there was a big debate about that."
David Black grew up in a liberal white family in Detroit.
"My parents were classic liberals, living in an all-white neighborhood. They believed in integration. My father and I and one of his friends went to the Detroit march. I was working with people who were probably members of the Communist Party.
"When I was a kid I went to a day camp set in northern Detroit, in a farm. I was also a counselor. We took urban kids and give them an introduction to farm life. I worked as a counselor, made $75 that summer."
Hank Thomas grew up in Saint Augustine, Florida, and went to college at Howard. From a young age, he rebelled against segregation. Saint Augustine later developed a reputation as a violently racist city, but he remembers it with some fondness. Thomas was originally from Wadley, Georgia, which he remembers as a more racist city. Wherever he went, Thomas created waves with his resistance to segregation.
"I was in a store in downtown Wadley (in Jefferson Davis County), and there was a white woman, in a narrow aisle, trying to pass me. She reached out and held me: ‘OK, I’m going past you.’ When she did that, everyone in the store was aghast because a white woman touched a black boy. Two or three friends ran home. By the time I got home, the news was all over the street, that I touched a white woman and my mother was deathly afraid. I was five or six at the time. Later on I learned that, had I grown up in Wadley, I could have gotten into some serious trouble.
The other thing seared in my memory, the Klan had a yearly parade at night [in Wadley], coming though the black community with the dome light on, everyone had lights off. We all all got down and peeked out. My mother pushed my head back down. This was the yearly thing of keeping blacks in their place and using fear."
As a child, Thomas refused to abide by segregation. His motivation, he says, came from the disconnect between the rhetoric of American democracy and the reality of segregated life.
“I was thinking about what I read in the books—the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. You saw the signs in Saint Augustine and the movie theaters that were segregated. I refused to go to the balcony because of that. I did go to a colored-only theater.
"I’ve always been a reader. I remember the Montgomery bus boycott and I knew that this [segregation] was wrong.
"My mother gave birth as a teenage girl, and she supposed to get married to the biological father. My father was the first man my mother ever courted. My mother had four brothers and she was the baby girl. They went to my father and put a whupping on him, whupped his ass, and told him he had to get married. On the day they were to get married, he took off. I never saw him till I was 35. On his side, uncles were jumping on him always for the slightest things. He wasn’t going to stay around to get an ass-whipping every time my mother had a complaint.
"My mother had a sister and brother who lived in Florida, so she was sent down, and that’s were I was born, in Jacksonville. My mother got married two or three years after I was born. My mother’s two sisters wanted to adopt me, and I lived with them at various times, as well as with my mother. My stepfather became the abuse that was given to him; he would come home and take it out on me and so I left, pulled away at an early age, to grow up with my aunts. I was raised in a very loving household. When you are raised by somebody who wanted you, who went out of the way, you could not be luckier. In Saint Augustine, I had a very good childhood.
"My aunt wondered why was I constantly making white people mad. They would call on a couple occasions: ‘Henry was down here today’—the library or whatever—nothing very threatening. ‘You need to talk to him and tell him he can’t do this. ‘You just getting white people upset for no reason.’"
Ericka Huggins (nee Jenkins) grew up in an all-black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. she remembers getting verbally abused by white when she crossed across the district line into Maryland to buy snacks at a convenience store. She also remembers her family riding around the neighborhoods of Washington and noticing economic disparities.
"At some point, I began asking questions in school. D.C. was 99 percent black for me. There were all black kids in elementary and middle school, not because we segregated it but because of institutional racism. I didn’t go to school with white students until got a high school transfer to go to a high school that prepared young people for college. I went to school with blacks of different classes and also white students for the first time. They were not at all like the whites who called me nigger and spit on me."
Jocelyn Jerome grew up in New York, where she was often only one of a few blacks in her classes.
"I remember being uncomfortable when folks were stereotyping. I was feeling a little inferior. I was embarrassed in the classroom, because when we talked about Africa, they always looked to me. I wanted to hide. There were two of us who were people of color; I had a friend who was Puerto Rican.
"My family talked a lot about racial issues, so we were very, very aware. I had a friend who worked for War Resisters League. Ralph di Gia was a good friend of the family. In 1958 and 1959 we took part in a demonstration on open housing in City Hall.
"Ralph called me up and said they’re looking for someone to work for CORE. I did everything. With the burning of the buses [during the Freedom Rides in 1961], that’s when CORE hit the big time. I worked for CORE from 1961 to 1964, before the black power movement took over."
John McArthur grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, an affluent white community just north of the Washington, D.C., border.
“My parents were liberal. They said, ‘Why don’t you join SNCC?’ I said, ‘OK, that could be fun.’ They [SNCC organizers] told me, ‘We’re going on a bus ride [to go South] to do a sit-in. A state trooper stopped the bus [outside Washington] and said, ‘This is as far as I can protect you.” Being a coward, I called parents and said, ‘Can you send a bus ticket home?’
John Shattuck grew up in suburban New Jersey.
“I got involved in the movement in high school in 1961, in Maplewood New Jersey. We had a summer institute, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. I wanted to meet people from different backgrounds. It spooked out my father. We learned all the happy little freedom songs and formed a state youth council in New Jersey to carry on the work of the summer. We had a speaker from CORE in Newark describe the Freedom Rides. I decided to go on it. I was 17, and it upset my family. I snuck out at 5 a.m. and went to Newark and took a bus.
John Takiss grew up in Philadelphia, loving the emerging folk and rock music that would play a powerful role in the civil rights movement.
"I was brought up in a liberal household and was very aware of racial issues. When I was a child, I remember taking a trip with our African American housekeeper and we went to Virginia. We stopped at a restaurant near Baltimore and they wouldn’t let her in and I was totally shocked. That was seven years before. That was my awakening to the issue. I went to liberal overnight camps. I had a friend went to the Little Red School House with Pete Seeger."
Larry Cumberbatch grew up in Brooklyn. His father was instrumental in organizing the first school boycott to demand for blacks the same rights of school choice that whites enjoyed. The elder Cumberbatch worked for the Transit Authority.
"At one point, my father decided to organize parents. He organized a boycott of the schools, the first ever. We wanted the same privileges these families around the corner want. We want to be able to bus kids to another school. When it came time for me to go to high school, we used a phony address—my father had a friend also named Cumberbatch—to let me go to PS 167. I had to take a bag and eat on Eastern Parkway [to pretend I lived nearby]. My father was always an activist and his saying was you have to do twice as good as a white guy to get ahead."
Floyd McKissick, Jr. grew up surrounded by key figures in the civil rights movement. His father was a lawyer for the movement, so leaders like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King would stay with the McKissicks in Durham, North Carolina, when they came to town for their work.
“They would always talk about informants and operatives and who they thought were agents reporting to the FBI. That was always a topic: ‘We think he’s an agent.’ There was a lot of sensitivity to FBI and intelligence-gathering and who could be trusted in your immediate circle. There were certain people who we believed to be agents and so we wouldn’t say too much around them; people would do things with a wink and nod, sometimes joking and sometimes serious. …
“You just had to watch out for security, everyone was getting threats all the time. I picked up the phone and it was another crank call. You would get letters with the Knights of the KKK. My mother use used to keep Playtex gloves. She’s say, ‘Don’t touch the mail,’ trying to keep it protected for fingerprints and it would be passed onto FBI. But of course they may be coming after you as much as they might help you. In Durham, for a year and a half, we’d have folks sit on porch with guns— shotguns, rifles, big long ones—to protect us from sunset to sunrise.
Peter Orris grew up in New York. As a high school student, he worked as a volunteer for the March on Washington’s organizing effort in Harlem. By that time, he had been organizing for civil rights for years.
“I was very committed to civil rights, so when I was 10 I was the kid who went into the library and told them to take out books with small ‘n’ negro. I wasn’t allowed to go on marches unless I could articulate the purpose. By the time of the second youth march [in 1959], my mother said it was my turn. She wanted me to do something to organize, not just go. I was in the eighth grade. I had to put a deposit on the bus—$200, which I collected from people. The day before I mislaid it and I was sure my mother would say, ‘Don’t worry.’ She said, ‘That’s too bad, you took money from people and now you’ve lost it.’ I was astounded. I had to go to everyone and apologize and say I lost the money. It was a very important life lesson. I found the money."
Ray Olitt was a student at the University of California at Berkeley.
"I was one of the kids who was really inspired by Kennedy. I was very active on my campus—in California at that time, there was a proposition on the ballot for fair housing. It was a big issue, saying you can’t discriminate because of race and color. The campus had a major student group that worked to try to get that initiative passed, and I led that group. I was very disappointed that our efforts did not make a big enough difference.
"My parents definitely espoused the values that all of us represented. My dad was Jewish, went to UCLA, but he hid his Jewishness because he wanted to get into a fraternity. He loved sports, and my mom was a huge sports fan and Jackie Robinson was at UCLA and he loved Jackie Robinson and transmitted his love of sports to me and my brothers. We loved some of the black athletes. Leamon King at Berkley, I idolized him, I got every photo I could get plastered all over my room growing up.
"I went to an elementary school that was mostly white, with one or two blacks. I just knew that there was no difference. My parents told me that all people should be treated equally. I got stronger than my parents. Berkeley High School was a very integrated high school. Most of my friends were white but I had friends who were black. I couldn’t stand to see what was happening in the South—television was showing dogs snapping the protesters. I vividly remember seeing those images. For me it wasn’t a single incident, it was a gradual evolution.
Eugene Redmond was a student at the University of Illinois at East St. Louis, where he was the editor of the student newspaper. He got involved in local protests and also traveled to other cities and towns to help with heir demonstrations.
"The year before the march I went to Texas to be a best man. It was an overnight trip and my friends, mother, sister, and nephew went along. At night we put the women and child in the car and we slept on the grass. The hotels wouldn’t serve us. We took fried chicken and put it in shoe boxes, wrapped in wax paper. Everyone traveled that way to save money.
"We were aware of the intensity and the sheer life-threatening nature of racism. Once we went in to buy food. There were truckers in shit-kicking boots turned to us and they were menacing. Ray and I had been in the military so we had pistols in the car. We come out of this history of the roots and history of hunting. This is a place where all men have weapons and early on you’re trained to use it. We were in a peaceful nonviolent movement, but there were times you traveled armed."
Rita Bender (then Rita Schwerner) was a student at Queens College.
“My involvement in the civil rights movement happened in incremental steps. That was true of most people, then and now. We came of age at just the right time. It’s not that that our generation was different than others. There was a whole constellation of things that came to pass at the same time.
“I spent two years at Michigan and finished at Queens College. I was the first kid in my extended family to go to college. My parents did not have lots of money, we just got by, and their idea was that I would go to a New York state teachers college. They didn’t perceive the difference between that and a university. My father sold insurance door to door, in Levittown. When I was a senior in high school I was determined to go to a university, so my parents finally said they would help me to go but I had to promise that my brother would start two years later. If they determined it wasn’t possible for both to be sent away to school, I would have to agree to transfer. So I came back to Queens College.
Sam Clark grew up in a labor and civil rights family in Flint, Michigan.
"My father was organizer and a delegate to Democratic National Committee and he traveled every four years to conventions. He ran the Department of Morior Vehicles and was a vice president of the UAW chapter.
"One time, I said, ‘Daddy how come you're never at home on weekends?’ He was always going to Mississippi and Alabama. He said, ‘Negroes can’t vote there.’”
Tom Reed grew up an oddity for a white: a socialist integrationist in Mississippi.
"My father, Thomas Reed, was the only socialist I knew. Everyone was white segregationist Democrats. He had been in the Mississippi legislature. In 1932, he was single and the president of the Mississippi Socialist Party. There was a lot more support for socialism in the South in those days, among normal people, people who saw capitalism as fatal.
"Both my parents were polite and proper to blacks. But there were a lot of small signals. I remember my mother telling me once, ‘Don’t call that person a lady, she’s black, not a lady, she’s a woman.’
Protest was not considered an acceptable strategy for challenging segregation. "‘This is not the way to solve things’ is what I heard my whole life. I was advised by a friend close to the Mississippi Catholic bishop to never tell him I did this [participated in the civil rights movement]. I also never told my father, it was just something against their values: ‘We don’t solve these intractable problems this way.’ But I was overwhelmed by the logic of ‘ Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ It was a challenge to the moderates to shit or get off the pot ."
Will Campbell, a white preacher from Mississippi, ministered to both blacks and whites, even members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I lost a job because it was alleged that I was a Klansman. I married their children, visited them when they were in prison. And at the same time, when I was in Danbury, Connecticut, I visited the Berrigan brothers. I knew both of them. My God, it’s right straight out of the New Testament. There’s nothing strange about it. The word got around that we were Klansman: ‘Will has become a Klansman and you need to get him out of the Council of Churches.’ I was visiting the grand dragon of the KKK.
"If you have any conversance with the scripture, Jesus taught that as much as anything. You don’t visit someone because of their crime, but because they’re in prison.”
Wyatt Tee Walker grew up in New Jersey and became a preacher at a church in Petersburg, Virginia, when Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
"My father—John Walker—was a race man. He was a very learned man. He read Hebrew and Greek every day and was a great scholar. He fought against any form of segregation that came his way. He was active in the NAACP and read a lot. He was in waiting room in train station in Emporia, Virginia, and the constable threatened him with a police stick, and he said, ‘I have a .32.’ Once that constable came down he was going to shoot him.
"I played with a little girl not far from my home. Her name was Nancy. One day she came to the curb and she was crying. I asked her, ‘What’s the matter?’ She said, ‘I can’t play with you because you’re colored.’ That was my first realization that I was different. I was five. Being a child, I wasn’t happy about it. I was disappointed, and angry too.
"New Jersey passed a law that if you had a means of admission they couldn’t keep you out. There was a movie house—the Park Theater in Merchantville, N.J. I was nine years old and went to go to movie “The Great Lie.” They wouldn’t sell us tickets, and the law was that you could go in, so we went in and sat down. And they wouldn’t let anyone sit in the row that we sat in. Shortly afterwards, it was desegregated. My father would not have stopped us.
"I grew up in south Jersey, which was called ‘Little Georgia.’ There were no colored people after dark. My oldest brother played on high school varsity team, and he and his friend Walt Williams rode on a bus to play and they wouldn’t let them off the bus to play. They had to stay on the bus while their team members played.
"I grew up in a segregated society. I went to all-colored schools until junior high school. Even though there weren’t signs in drug stores, you couldn’t sit down. It was a very separate existence between white and black people. Not far from us, they burned a cross on Father Divine’s property. The vestiges of racial segregation were all around me as I grew up.
"I wasn’t nonviolent when I came to Petersburg as a pastor. I carried a gun—a nickel-plated .32 Smith and Wesson. I was looking for a confrontation, looking for an excuse to use a gun because I was dead-set against segregation and discrimination. … I just stopped carrying the gun. I decided if I was a disciple of Martin King, I couldn’t carry a gun. I developed a knowledge of the techniques of nonviolence and hearing about Gandhi. If I shot somebody I’d have to go to prison—a black killing a white man. It just didn’t make sense to me. …
"Nonviolence disarms your opponent because so much of the segregated lifestyle is built by intimidation and violence and it doesn’t make any sense. The majority community had all the weapons. I used to say that to Malcolm X. He talked about blacks arming themselves.