• Warren K. Leffler
  • Let’s take this into a conference room.

The Sunday Tribune looked back 50 years to the March on Washington and was honest about its nervous Nellie coverage. Much of what it had had to say prior to the march “concentrated on fears the demonstrations would turn violent,” the Tribune allowed, and its page one story reporting on the march had led with the observation that the “vast but orderly throng” behaved itself. “The crowd was boisterous. But it was never sullen or angry despite some speeches which bordered on the inflammatory.”

But, the Tribune recalled, the editorial page of 1963 “still wouldn’t let it go.” Afterward, it “harrumphed” condescendingly that “the planners and participants can consider their job well done, and the residents of the capital, who had to put up with a day’s inconvenience, are entitled to acknowledgment of their patience. Such oratory as there was, was less superheated than might have been expected.”

It’s to the credit of the Tribune of today that it’s so willing to be amused by the Tribune of yesterday. But the Tribune of yesterday had company.

The Tribune‘s flashback reminded me that eight years ago I’d quoted the same lines from the same editorial in a column on the sorry coverage of the march in the Chicago press. The haughtiness of the white voices raised preemptively against black mayhem is astonishing. No good would come of the show the civil rights crowd was cooking up—that was the common view. A Daily News columnist advised that the “apprehensions” of labor leaders that the march would get out of hand “are shared by most informed people.” The Tribune hit bottom when it appealed for a “rediscovery of reason,” citing a French sociologist’s warning that “like the savage and the child . . . the crowd is intolerant of anything interposed between its desires and their realization. . . . The organizers of the Washington march know all this, yet they have persisted in carrying forward this combustible affair.”

Yet when 300 marchers just back from their peaceful day in Washington demonstrated in front of a Chicago newspaper, it wasn’t the Tribune. They had no reason to expect better from the Tribune.

No, they took their protest to the Sun-Times, which had fretted as loudly as anyone else. “Today is a day to breathe a prayer for peace in Washington,” said the Sun-Times when the day dawned. “This is the day of the march for civil rights in the nation’s capital and the dread specter of possible violence hangs over the proceeding.” To be sure, the Sun-Times “approves of the fundamental cause of civil rights. It does not, however, approve of the march as a method to dramatize that cause.” Why court trouble?

Afterward, the Sun-Times stood its ground. OK, nothing bad had happened this time. Nevertheless, “the time has come for the demonstrations for civil rights to be taken off the streets and into the conference rooms.” The Sun-Times could only hope that among the march’s leaders “were some who agree with this advice for the future conduct of the civil rights crusade.” Over brandy and cigars, sensible men could hammer out racial equality and brotherhood.

The grudging acknowledgement that “such oratory as there was” was not incendiary did not betoken any sort of fundamental shift by the Tribune on racial matters. When President Johnson in 1965 asked Congress to pass a voting rights bill (to be hammered out in a conference room, I suppose), the Tribune sneered. “Mr. Johnson again presented himself as a miracle man who will bring about the reformation of mankind’s soul, spread brotherhood to the farthest shore, educate and make everyone healthy, wealthy, and wise,” said the editorial page. “This is a brand of socialistic nonsense which even such medicine men as Upton Sinclair never had the temerity to preach in their palmiest days.

“Poverty is overcome by men able and intelligent enough to hold a job,” the Tribune thundered. “It is overcome as the post-war West Germans overcame it—by working harder, while their neighbors, the British in especial, hit the featherbed. It is not overcome by beatnik lie-ins and the riots of mobs in cities and on campuses. Nor will it be overcome by visionary boondoggles, politically inspired.”

Colonel McCormick was ten years dead at this point; a new generation of Tribune leadership had yet to emerge. The paper read like it was: headless.