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Walk to Freedom

August 17, 2013

America is remembering The March on Washington, which took place fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963.  All across the country, gallery presentations, conferences and other gatherings are marking the event.  Starting this week, there is a full schedule of events planned for Washington D.C., including a special commemoration at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of the original march, where Barack Obama and others will speak.button2

The March on Washington was organized to bring attention to the prevalent economic and social discrepancies between the races and as a protest against laws and structures that promoted the ugly legacies that plagued the country. Tension was high and the capitol braced itself for violence and riots.  Life magazine proclaimed that the city was going through “its worst case of jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.”

Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins appeared on NBC’s, Meet the Press, three days earlier.  The very first question that was asked was, “Mr. Wilkins, there are a great many people, as I am sure you know, who believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting. What do you see as the effect on the just cause of the Negro if you do have incidents, if you do have any rioting?”  The military posted thousands of troops on standby and hospitals readied themselves for casualties by cancelling all elective surgery that week.   In anticipation of unrest in the city, the Washington Senators, who played their games nearly four miles away, rescheduled their four-game series with the Minnesota Twins so that doubleheaders were held August 26 and August 29, rather than holding single games on the two days in the middle.  (The Senators, who finished in last place that year, 48.5 games behind the New York Yankees, were also not a big attraction that year.  They sold a little more than a half million tickets that season, including a combined ten thousand for the two doubleheaders.)

The Meet the Press show created a narrative and showed antipathy for the civil rights movement.  Additional questions from the panel that day emphasized common beliefs of some white Americans and exhibited the tactics of the times.  They focused on (1) the necessity of the march, since certainly everyone was aware that blacks were discontent; (2) the possibility that there were ulterior motives for it, since one of the principal organizers previously exhibited curiosity about communism; (3) the particular organizational methods of the various civil rights groups; (4) baiting, obfuscation and coloring the principles of non-violence advocated by King, Wilkins and others with reference to isolated incidents; and (5) the potential benefits to the civil rights cause by simply reducing their desires and demands for equality and justice.


An appeal from March on Washington leaders

Violence was not a factor August 28, 1963.  The day is not remembered for any such thing.  March leaders had issued an appeal to participants to create a tone for the day.

“It will be orderly, but  not subservient. It will be proud, but not arrogant.  It will be  nonviolent but not timid.  It will be unified in purposes and behavior,  not splintered into groups and individual competitors.  It will be outspoken, but not raucous.  It will have the dignity befitting a demonstration in behalf of the human rights of 20 millions of people, with the eye and the judgment of the world focused upon Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.”

Capitol police documented arrests of four people, all of whom were white.


Bob Dylan at the farm of Silas Magee in Greenwood, Mississipi in July 1963

An estimated quarter of a million people gathered in the Washington Mall to hear speakers and listen to music played from a sophisticated and expensive sound system that had to be repaired the night before the march because it had been sabotaged.  Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Odetta were among those who performed that day.  Dylan sang a “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song that he wrote that summer and had only performed once before, at a voter registration rally at the cotton farm of Silas Magee in Greenwood, Mississippi.  Greenwood was the home of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist with the NAACP who was murdered on his driveway on June 12, the day after John Kennedy addressed the nation and spoke about his proposed Civil Rights Act.  Evers was shot in the back with a deer hunting rifle by a white man named Byron de la Beckwith, who was hiding behind a bush.

Beckwith believed that segregation was his God’s law.  In a 1956 open letter to the Jackson Daily News, he denounced any Episcopalian priest in Mississippi who promoted race integration.  He claimed that they “maliciously defy the laws of God” and said that they should be “…immediately stripped of all robes and vestments…”  Local authorities did not arrest Beckwith; the FBI had to step in.  Local politicians and others protected Beckwith in the immediate afterward and for years thereafter.  Although fingerprints and other evidence clearly implicated Beckwith, with the help of the state and all-white juries, he avoided a guilty charge for thirty-one years.  The physical evidence was essentially the same in the 1994 trial as it had been in the 1960s hearings, but additional evidence, including his boast of killing Evers, and a segregated jury finally brought justice.


A telegram written by Jackie Robinson to John Kennedy, June 15, 1963



A memorial was held on June 15 in Jackson, Mississippi, with King and other civil rights leaders in attendance.  There was concern that the gathering would attract more violence.  Jackie Robinson, believed that King would be a murder target himself and he sent a wire to President Kennedy to urge him to take all steps necessary to protect King, because the country needed him.  Evers, a World War II veteran, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on June 19.  President Kennedy received the Evers family at the White House to express his condolences.  Meanwhile, even in the North, the country was in conflict over fundamental basic rights.  Within the seven days between Evers’ death and his funeral, a construction project at a hospital in Harlem came to a halt over the assignment of a contract to a segregated labor union and fights broke out in Philadelphia when blacks received work on a public school construction site.


Walk to Freedom on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, June 23, 1963

On June 23, King was in Detroit to take part in what the local newspaper called the “largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history.”  The protest was fully sanctioned by the state and local governments.  King was greeted at the airport by Detroit Police Commissioner George Edwards, who in a reference to the brutality that civil rights activists faced in Alabama earlier that year, told him. “You’ll see no dogs and fire hoses here.”  For sure, there was a great contrast for King, who for his part, had been jailed in Alabama for his activism.  Former governor John Swainson and other state and local leaders participated with King in the Detroit events that day.  Governor George Romney proclaimed June 23, 1963 as “Freedom March Day” in Michigan.

King and CL Franklin 6-23-63

Martin Luther King and CL Franklin at the Walk to Freedom

An estimated one hundred and twenty-five thousand people participated in the Walk to Freedom along Woodward Avenue to Cobo Arena, on the shores of the Detroit River.  The march and other activities were organized by C.L. Franklin, a popular Baptist minister of a Detroit church who was also very active in the civil rights movement.  He was the father of Aretha Franklin, who decades later sang at the inauguration of President Obama.  Franklin was part of a group that named themselves the Detroit Council for Human Rights.  They sponsored a full day of prayer, music, speeches and peaceful protest and collected donations for a scholarship fund for Evers’ children.  There were no reported incidents of violence that day, in contrast to four summers later, when there was extreme rage and unrest in Detroit and most other American cities.

King previewed his famous “I Have a Dream” refrain twice before the March on Washington – first in Newark at the beginning of the year and then in Detroit on June 23.  The Detroit speech, which was delivered to twenty-five thousand people in the Cobo Arena and piped to others outside the hall, was every bit as inspiring as the speech which will be remembered during this week’s commemorative events.  King preached the values of non-violence and warned against the dangers and moral failures of black supremacy.  This was his determined philosophy and the principle on which he lead the country.  It was also, of course, a response to others in the civil rights movement who criticized him for the approach and believed that it would leave blacks forever short of their desires for equality.  Indeed, during the next stop on his trip, at an event in Harlem, he was taunted by blacks for his insistence that violence was to be avoided.

And so with this week’s news cycle, we will have the chance to remember King and others involved in the 1960s civil rights movement.  Clips of the March on Washington speech will be looped on the cable stations and there will be carefully crafted sound bites for our consumption.  To supplement all of this, you may want to connect to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, the King Research and Education Institute.  There, if you have a half hour, you can go back in time and feel the inspiration that King provided in Detroit in his warm-up to the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“And so I go back to the South not in despair.  I go back to the South not with a feeling that we are caught in a dark dungeon that will never lead to a way out.  I go back believing that the new day is coming.  And so this afternoon, I have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, that one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free.

I have a dream this afternoon that there will be a day that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity.

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children (yeah), that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.

Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and ‘justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’

I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’  I have a dream this afternoon.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’

I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.

And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair.  With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

From → America

  1. Thanks Bruce… a well thought out and important blog. I remember watching the march and listening to King on TV. It was one of the factors that led me participate in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the mid 60s and join the Peace Corps. –Curt


    • Curt – you had a front row seat! I am curious, did your work with the Peace Corps (and the associated travel) inspire your interest in photography?

      Thank you for your compliment.


      • I have to confess, my interest in photography evolved much later. I often wish it had been sooner. So many adventures went unrecorded… (grin) –Curt


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