One Historic March, Countless Striking Moments

Aug 28, 2013
Originally published on August 28, 2013 7:26 pm

We started our historical Twitter account, @TodayIn1963, in June with the idea that we wanted to bring this monumental summer back to life with a modern take.

NPR librarian JoElla Stralley, Code Switch's Matt Thompson and I combed through primary sources and archived newspaper articles to replicate the moments of that era. We saw first-hand the ways that different newspapers handled Civil Rights coverage, often filling a small span of their pages with protest stories from the AP or UPI, or even with Q and As that felt eerily modern. This was our chance to re-tell the story of 1963, but this time with greater detail and in a contemporary way.

The summer of 1963 was bursting with drama and would become a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights movement. It was the year that Alabama governor George Wallace tried to block — physically and politically — two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones, from enrolling in the University of Alabama; the year Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his own driveway; and the same year that brought together more than 200,000 protesters for the March on Washington for better jobs and equal treatment.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. So often we forget or overlook the minor but telling details of the day and of that summer. And today's the day. We've researched and compiled more than 100 tweets to bring Aug. 28, 1963 to life and add texture to that moment.

Here are 10 moments big and small from Aug. 28, 1963 that often get overlooked:

  • At 3 a.m., the National Council of Churches launched "Operation Sandwich" and had hundreds of volunteers making about 80,000 bagged lunches. The lunches sold for $0.50 each and came with a slice of American cheese on white bread, an apple and pound cake.
  • The Mall was so crowded that many folks went temporarily missing, including actress and singer Lena Horne, as well as Jackie Robinson's son, David. Both Lena and David were announced missing via the $16,000 loud speaker system acquired for the event.
  • John Lewis had to tone down his original speech after pressure from March organizers. In Lewis' prepared text: "In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill." In Lewis' actual speech: "It is true that we support the administration's Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however." (Read his full prepared remarks and compare it to his actual speech.)
  • Hazel Mangle Rivers of Birmingham, Ala., paid $8 — one-tenth of her husband's weekly salary — for a bus ticket to Washington, D.C. She told New York Times reporter Frank Powledge of her experience at the March: "Why, when I was out there at the March, a white man stepped on my foot, and he said 'Excuse me' and I said 'Certainly,'" Rivers said. "I believe that was the first time a white person has ever really been nice to me."
  • By 2 p.m., thousands of folks had already drifted out of earshot and left the ceremony, when the speeches officially began. They missed Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech.
  • After the March, the roads were eerily quiet, so much that Thomas Gentile wrote of the day: "Indeed traffic was so light in Washington that day that a [Washington] Star reporter called it 'a harried motorist's dream of heaven.' .... By dusk the city seemed strangely deserted."
  • The New York Times reported on Aug. 29 that only four people were arrested in relation to the March: one was a member of the American Nazi Party who tried to address a group of counter-protesters without a demonstrator's permit, one was throwing rocks at a bus filled with marchers, another had a loaded shotgun and the fourth stole a protestor's sign and tore it up.
  • Some folks saw their trip to Washington, D.C. as a chance to march for civil rights and see the capital. They posed like tourists for photos and even rode the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.
  • George Lincoln Rockwell, American Nazi Party leader, tried organizing a crowd of about 70 counter-protesters at the base of the Washington Monument. He left the March in disgust, saying he was ashamed of his race.
  • Bob Dylan sang "Only A Pawn In Their Game," a tribute to Medgar Evers. The song, as Bilal Qureshi writes, "leans hard on the idea that Evers' killer was not the only guilty party."
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As we've been reporting this morning, it was 50 years ago today that hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington for the biggest single protest of the Civil Rights Movement. Here at NPR, our Code Switch Team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture, has been reliving events in the seminal civil rights year of 1963, reporting them as if they were happening now, in real time, through a Twitter feed. It's called At Today in 1963.

Kat Chow is the curator, digging up primary sources and eyewitness accounts to transport us back in time using just 140 characters. Kat joined us to share what she's uncovered about the hours leading up to the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "I Have A Dream" speech.

Kat, welcome.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Hey, David. Thank you.

GREENE: So take us through the morning. I mean you're gathering all this information right now, as if you were a reporter right there covering this event in 1963. I mean take us to the morning of the march. What's happening?

CHOW: Yeah. So as people are arriving and from these different cities to Union Station in Washington, D.C., according to the Christian Science Monitor, the National Association of Churches was launching at 3:00 a.m. this campaign called Operation Sandwich, where they had hundreds of organizers and volunteers making sandwiches in an assembly line. And their goal was to have 80,000 sandwiches put out by the morning.

GREENE: For people arriving, to be able to eat before going to the march.

CHOW: For marchers, yeah. And also on the actual march day, people were getting impatient. As you can imagine, the vast stretch of the Mall, I mean you have the Washington Monument, you have the Lincoln Memorial. They were told to organize at a few different places. It didn't necessarily go as planned. For example, some celebrities were scheduled to arrive at the march at 10:00 a.m., but they actually arrived at the airport at 11:10 a.m.

GREENE: A little late.

CHOW: A little late, and some people were getting lost. So Lena Horne, the singer, at 10:56 a.m. was announced lost. And as the...

GREENE: They announced that she was lost on the stage.

CHOW: They announced that she was lost, and as - I'm quoting The New York Times - the loudspeaker said sort of desperately: We are trying to locate Lena Horne. Lena, wherever you are.

GREENE: OK, so we're talking about how to feed all these people. We're talking about how to make sure people get where they need to go. But so far things sound peaceful and festive.

CHOW: Yeah, exactly. So Roy Wilkins, who was an NAACP leader, was actually quite satisfied with how the march was going. And he described it as almost looking like a Yankees game.

GREENE: Wow, baseball game.

CHOW: So, and other language that articles used, like The New York Times, for example, had this headline called "Gentle Army Occupies Capital," and said that folks had this good temper and that people were walking around leisurely.

GREENE: Now, Kat, let me ask you this. We use the term march to describe this event. Were people actually moving?

CHOW: The idea was that people would call from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the program would begin at noon. The intention was that the march leaders would be at the front of the group, as they all moved along. But you see that things didn't go as planned in the different accounts that newspapers had. And marchers had had enough and they started moving toward the Lincoln Memorial very, very slowly.

So people were moving in a sense. But if you look at photos of the Mall from 50 years ago, it almost looks like an assembly. People were just hanging out. Some people were napping underneath trees where it was shady. It was kind of a hot day in the mid-80s. And so people were just enjoying themselves.

GREENE: And so you've kind of taken us up to the moment itself and then you're going to be live tweeting today, as if you were tweeting back in 1963, following these events unfold. Kat, thanks for coming in.

CHOW: Yeah, thank you.


GREENE: Kat Chow is with NPR's Code Switch Team reporting on race, ethnicity and culture. And you can follow her tweets reporting the original March on Washington as if it were happening today all day long @TodayIn1963.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.