– by Katherine McKinney
On an August afternoon 50 years ago, approximately 250,000 people united in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” At a time when many nonviolent demonstrations resulted in shocking, deadly violence, people from all walks of life gathered to peacefully and forcefully advocate for equality. Spurred by an unwavering belief in their power to create change, they came together in the heart of our nation’s capital, on the National Mall, considered by many the nation’s “town square.” The reverberations of the March, which ended in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic rallying cry, known forever as his “I Have a Dream” speech, continue to echo through the life of the nation, including the lives of members of Congress from the Mid-Atlantic region. Today, we look back at the memories and legacy of that historic day five decades ago.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia
As a Yale law school student involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Rep. Norton actively participated in organizing the March. She was at an ideal age “when the civil rights [movement] was being born” she says, because she “could be a part of it.”
Asked to describe the day’s atmosphere, Rep. Norton first observes that today we take the March for granted. She notes, “There had not been, in memory, a mass march on Washington.” The March itself, to speak nothing of its impact, was a momentous feat.
During the March, she stood at the center of the action—by the Lincoln Memorial. “As far as the eye could see there were people,” says Rep. Norton. “Nobody could have hoped to bring that many people to Washington from all backgrounds from all over the country.” She was, like others in attendance, “stunned by the beauty and the resonance of King’s speech.” She was moved by every speech that day. “It was one tour de force after another…They seemed fresh and new and bound to yield results of some kind.”
To Rep. Norton, the March on Washington was “the crescendo in the civil rights struggle... it influenced all the great movements that followed. People realized, ‘If you want something from your government, you have to get into the streets to get it.’”
Rep. Michael F. Doyle, D-Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Rep. Doyle was a ten-year-old baseball enthusiast during the summer of 1963. Learning about the March in college, he was struck by the results attainable through unified action. “[The March] made me realize that average folks who had little power individually could effect change when they stood together in large numbers behind a cause,” he says.
Rep. E. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, Virginia
As he embarked on his political career years ago, someone asked Scott Rigell whom he most admired from American history. His response included George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan. Besides Dr. King’s resonant and unparalleled speaking voice, he most respects Dr. King’s ability and willingness “to speak truth to power” and “to stand for what he believed in.”
The March was one of those “definitive moments in our [nation’s] journey where you can point…and say, ‘That was a turning point. That was a pivotal moment,’ ” he says. The ability to listen to the recorded speeches or watch the video years after the fact ensures the impact of that day endures. As Rep. Rigell notes, the March comes alive through these recordings and becomes “so much more real to us.”
America has “an incredible opportunity…to lead the world,” Rep. Rigell maintains, by embracing “this idea that people who look very diverse physically, maybe, can have such a strong set of shared values that we prosper, that we learn how to make good decisions…based on what’s right for our children” and based on what’s right for “the full fabric of our community long-term.”
Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Though Rep. Schwartz was only 14 years old at the time, and not present at the March, the legacy of that day “left an indelible impression of the power of people,” she says. The March participants “came from different backgrounds, races and religions, and from all aspects of society, in a united effort to push our government to do what was right. And, they did it with the unyielding belief that they would make a difference.” As we continue to strive toward a nation free of discrimination, Rep. Schwartz exhorts us to “participate in civic life” and “use our strengths and our talents to break through ideological divisions and find common ground.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Baltimore, Maryland
Senator Cardin remembers attending elementary school in Baltimore when the city’s public schools were still segregated by race. He laments “how discrimination was not only condoned but, more often than not, actually encouraged against Blacks, Jews, Catholics and other minorities in the community.” So, while “Brown vs. Board of Education changed the law,” Sen. Cardin says, “the March on Washington changed minds, and brought a roaring voice to [the] need for racial equality and justice for all.”
In August 1963, Sen. Cardin was starting his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. He still recalls “the amazing images of the crowds swarming the Lincoln Memorial” that were aired on television at a time when “television was just really starting to emerge as a major presence.” As a college student watching the massive gathering and listening to the speeches on TV, he had no way to know that one day he would “serve in the House of Representatives with the legendary John Lewis, who took the stage…as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
“For my generation, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. resonate as deeply as the words of John F. Kennedy,” says Sen. Cardin. “Their calls to service crossed racial, ethnic, and gender lines.” He continues, “[While] we should be proud of the progress America has made advancing civil rights over the years, … we need to get back to a place of understanding and compassion”—a place where diversity is celebrated as “one of the strengths of our communities.”
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, Virginia
Rep. Forbes, a pre-teen in rural Norfolk County (now Chesapeake), Virginia at the time of the March, describes how Dr. King’s speech, “delivered to the immense, peaceful, multiracial throng and broadcasted to the nation…sounded the clarion call for racial equality, set the tone for a massive, national movement in support of civil rights for all Americans, and struck a resonant chord of fairness and faith in my youthful heart that continues to inspire and motivate me today.” Furthermore, he says, “For all of the significance that the March on Washington held on that day, its full impact has resonated most clearly in my life as a gradual and continuous stream of developments as I have witnessed and experienced around me the dismantlement of the institution of racial segregation.”
Rep. John C. Carney, Jr., D-Wilmington, Delaware
Then a seven-year-old attending a Catholic school in Delaware, Rep. Carney remembers the months leading up to the March, and the nuns encouraging people to attend the event. Outside of school, however, the young John Carney sensed an undercurrent of a different feeling in the larger community. There was “some amount of fear and trepidation that it might be…violent at some level.” These fears, as the day would show, thankfully proved to be unfounded.
For Rep. Carney, “the religious connection of the movement was…the most important element of the success [of the March] because it appealed to values beyond our civic values...” The March, especially the speech by Dr. King, spoke to “how we should treat other people.” And, in doing so, this universal message—carried forward by the civil rights movement—“freed all of America. [It] freed white America from its biases and its racism and prejudices” as well as black America.
Looking ahead, Rep. Carney hopes we as a nation continue to pursue “the dream that every child will be judged based not on the color of their skin but the content of their character.” As the son of two school teachers, he seems especially concerned with the disparities in education between white children and children of color and between children from affluent families and children from families of lower socio-economic standing. “To lift all kids up, educationally,” Rep. Carney says, “[is] one of the biggest challenges that we face as a nation.”
With many national parks dedicated to telling the story of America’s Civil War to civil rights journey, and in light of the powerful example set by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is humbling to remember that each of us adds a piece to history. Our unique perspectives and memories, diverse and distinct, enrich and inform the stories being told, preserved, and passed down through the generations. And, united, our voices have the power to change the future.