Marching for a cause was hardly an innovation in this country by the time the now historic August 1963 March on Washington took place.
There had been hundreds of previous processions, some dating to the Revolutionary era.
And there have been countless marches in this country since 1963. Including last Saturday in San Francisco.
I’d been in so many since 1963. Would I have participated in this one, were I not disabled beyond mobility? Would I have been there as one of those who want Israel destroyed for its cruelly disproportionate response to Hamas? Would I have been there to shout slogans advocating that tens of thousands of Arabs/Muslims/Jews to be killed after October 7th?
I now think back on 1963. I don’t remember that any slogans were shouted, though the violence that inspired the marchers to be there was as pervasive in 1963 as the violence in the Mideast is today.
So was the near total ignorance on the part of most of us about what was “really going on.” And we had little idea of how the event had been put together. Even less about how the complexities of history would come to see it. (There’s no excuse for not knowing now - see the recently released movie, “Rustin” for starters.)
When you’re young (I was 26 in 1963) you take one step at a time.
Getting from New York to Washington was my first step. Trains had been sold out for weeks, but as a volunteer in the organizing office of the March I had a ticket. I also had enough experience with the unreliability of east coast trains to know I should travel the day before.
So, I took an extra day off. and didn’t get in trouble; I told my boss, and my boss’s boss, what I was going to do. Many of my co-workers at my first full time job since college (manuscript reader, proof reader, copy editor at the then small publishing company, Random House) did the same.
On arrival, I rode the complicated bus system to a friend’s house in classy Northwest Washington. (The once excellent, since deteriorated Metro subway system wasn’t opened until 1976)
My friend and his family weren’t nearly as wealthy as people elsewhere in their postal code, 18NW - Zip Codes , like the Metro, were yet to be invented. For now my friends were “trying out” life in Washington, to see if he wanted to relocate there “temporarily.” They had a big borrowed house, and I was welcome.
The job he was contemplating paid about ten times what his salary had been at the small Midwest college where he was a tenured professor. His new duties would include a few lectures (i.e. readings) a year. No students to grade. No tests to give. No classes to prepare.
He not only took the “job” as Poet Laureate of The United States, but stayed in and around DC for the rest of his life. His name was Reed Whittemore.
Fun Fact: Whittemore was already “wired” into the unspoken DC ethos upon arrival. Not because he had won many literary prizes. Not because he had lots of books in print. Not because he’d gone to Yale.
Because one of his prep school and college buddies had been James Jesus Angleton, a CIA official in 1960’s Washington, who was feared by all and sundry in government. Supposedly, he had a dossier of unverified information about everyone. Including Members of Congress. White House staff (both parties). Supreme Court Justices.
No evidence has ever surfaced that Whittemore ever saw or even corresponded with Angleton. But that didn’t stop lines in minds from being drawn.
You have to understand the Washington of 1963 to begin to know the tectonic plates the “March on Washington” began to start shaking. And which the Whittemores would experience for decades. (I caught some of it too, later on, during the years of Iran-Contra, Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, Henry Hyde, and a confused and confusing Senator, Joe Biden, who seemed to chair all important hearings.)
There was segregation, male supremacy, anti-communism, alcoholism, infidelity. And, like thunder in the distance, enormous wealth disparity poised to lose its unpredictable precipitation.
Most of the 1963 assemblage had never been in Washington before. Most were “negroes” who had travelled long distances in old yellow school buses. Buses without bathrooms, navigating states where gas station rest rooms had big “Whites Only” signs on their door.
Me, on the morning of the March, I took an uncrowded city bus downtown. The almost entirely white citizens of Northwest DC were well aware of the March. But the extensive media coverage was blurred in the public mind as “blahblahblah tens of thousands of NEGROES are expected…” “blahblahblah NEGRO leaders include many who were involved in recent incidents of violence and bloodshed” “officials in many southern cities say they’re glad local NEGROES will be far away this weekend…”
No wonder that white folks were staying away.
As I got closer to the Mall the all-black crowd got denser.
And I began to hear not speeches from a stage, not chanting from my fellow marchers, not singing as we marched, but …music! I don’t remember who performed in what order: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger were most familiar to me, though as a child I listened (clandestinely) to Gospel on my clunky bedroom radio.
Later I learned that Mahalia Jackson, Josephine Baker and others as familiar to the “negro” crowd as Baez, Dylan and Seeger were to me had tried to sing and lead Marchers, but were stopped by the (all black) March organizers who feared “dilution” of the main message. (All of the behind the scenes struggles are chronicled in the Stanford archives, magnificently led by Dr. Claiborne Carson.)
Fast forward to this week in San Francisco. As hundreds still gather here and march (or try to) about horrific slaughter in the Middle East, others are trying to gather and march about APEC. What is APEC? Protest groups you almost certainly never heard of say it is an association of governments and multinational corporations who create, fund, deploy, and profit from weapons of death and destruction. And also contribute to global warming, massive air and ground contamination, and starvation.
The good old dullards at what’s left of our “flagship” newspaper, cite in a small article the coming APEC protests. These “could get violent,” clucks the Chronicle. “If protesters push too close to security…they could harm San Francisco’s image on the world stage.”
No less a personage than our own current Caesar is to be (and I hope he is!) protected by roads-closed, electronics-monitored aircraft-grounded “security.”
Were I still able to be visibly with the anti-APECS I’d be there in body, as well as in sprit, which I surely am.
(Larry welcomes your comments: Lbensky@igc.org.)