The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
On August 28, 1963, Chicago teacher and activist Timuel Black stood in the mall in Washington with 250,000 others and absorbed Martin Luther King Jr.’s soaring vision of a new kind of nation.
Black was 44 then. He’d been born in the segregated south—in Birmingham, Alabama—but his family had moved to Chicago when he was a baby, his parents seeking better opportunities. They found another brand of segregation in their new city: blacks were confined to a narrow strip of the south side, in which poverty was widespread.
When he wasn’t teaching, Black had spent much of his adult life immersed in campaigns for civil rights and workers’ rights, including protests against segregation in Chicago schools and public facilities in Alabama. He was an early supporter of King’s and had high hopes for his speech at the march.
He wasn’t disappointed. Now 94, Black still remembers the sense of possibility that overtook him that day.
“My feelings were, ‘There’s going to be a new world,'” Black says, “because he said, ‘I have a dream.’ And many of us were going to return home to help fulfill that dream.”
King’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is one of the most enduring moments of the civil rights movement. As the 50th anniversary approaches—a demonstration commemorating the march will be held in Washington on Saturday—two of the men who helped organize its Chicago contingent, Black and longtime political activist Don Rose, 82, recall the powerful sense of unity it created, and argue that it’s time for another movement for racial and economic justice.
In the years leading up to the march, civil rights activists had fought segregation and discrimination in the south, with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville and Greensboro, North Carolina.
Thousands of Chicagoans were also demanding change. Mayor Richard J. Daley dominated the city’s politics and government with little tolerance for dissent, and his board of education kept the schools racially segregated even when it meant forcing black children to attend classes in shifts or mobile units. Activists led boycotts of several south-side schools and a sit-in at the office of the school board president.
Timuel Black was a high school teacher and president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council. At a national board meeting in January 1963, A. Philip Randolph, the NALC president, proposed a march on Washington to pressure the federal government for more aggressive civil rights and job-creation policies. “Those of us who were there looked around and said, ‘How in the world is he going to do that?'” Black remembers.
There were concerns among civil rights leaders, both in Chicago and nationally, that the turnout would be small, or that the protest would become violent—which in either case would hurt the chances of the civil rights bill stuck in Congress that would ban segregation in public facilities.
But Black was confident, especially after Randolph asked King to be the nominal leader of the march. Black had met King in 1955 when Black had traveled to Montgomery to join the bus boycott. “He was young, brilliant, and articulate, the kind of person you just felt confidence in,” Black says.
In May 1963, Black returned to Alabama to join King and thousands of others protesting segregation and hiring discrimination in Birmingham. Soon after, King asked Black to help organize the Chicago contingent for the march on Washington. Black then recruited Don Rose to assist.
Black had run for alderman of the 4th Ward that February, challenging the Daley-backed incumbent and losing. In contrast, some of the leaders of civil rights organizations in Chicago had ties to Daley’s machine. “They really didn’t want to make any trouble, and they were quite happy to shove this potential catastrophe off on Mr. Black,” says Rose, who’d served as Black’s spokesman and strategist during the aldermanic campaign.
Because a base of activists already existed from the school protests, Black was optimistic about Chicago’s participation. He felt the march would improve the prospects of the civil rights bill while also energizing local activists. “The young people were very anxious for something to happen,” he says.
He explained the importance of the march in a guest column in the Chicago Defender in early August 1963. Black wrote that it was “strange” that Negroes had to spend time organizing and fighting for their rights, and demonstrating, as they would in Washington at month’s end. He lamented that he wasn’t working on other causes as much as he wanted to. He belonged to two peace groups, but in the previous four years, “I have attended exactly one meeting and read very little literature on this vital subject,” he wrote. “I have been too busy fighting for immediate goals” such as “freedom, justice, and equality for all men in general, but the American Negro in particular.”
Black noted in the column that he’d recently seen TV coverage of white south-side teens carrying signs in front of their school and chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” “We hope that the White American soon will mature and be able to sing with all of us ‘Black and White together’ and ‘We shall overcome some day,'” he wrote. He looked forward to the day “when we can channel our time and energy into the attempt to keep this world from being blown into smithereens.”
Through a black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Chicago march organizers chartered two “freedom trains” to Washington. They left the city on the evening of August 27 with close to 2,000 passengers, most of them black, though there were a couple hundred whites and a large contingent of reporters. Perhaps an equal number of Chicago demonstrators traveled to the capital by plane, bus, and car.
Black and Rose had no idea how large the event would be. They found out as soon as they exited the train and headed toward the Washington Monument. “It was really celebratory from the moment I stepped out of the station,” Rose says. “You started marching in a swarm of people. I remember a bunch of guys in their mason’s uniforms with the funny hats. You knew something very big [was happening]. It wasn’t until the speeches and everything afterward that gave you the sense of how really big it was—but you knew you were making history.”
“There was a sense of harmony and unity—on the train, and as we marched,” Black says.
Like some of the other marchers, Black brought his children, a 15-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son. Rose, who was a few inches taller than Black, boosted the ten-year-old onto his shoulders so he could see the White House as they passed it.
James Ritch, a Tribune reporter who accompanied the Chicago group, described the scene in the paper the next day. The Chicagoans were separated in the crowd on their way to the Washington Monument, and it seemed impossible that they could reunite and march together, he wrote. “But reassemble they did. . . . By twos and threes and later by fifties and hundreds they gathered around a half dozen banners.”
“It was really celebratory from the moment I stepped out of the station. You knew something very big [was happening]. It wasn’t until the speeches and everything afterward that gave you the sense of how really big it was—but you knew you were making history.”—Longtime political activist Don Rose, who was recruited by Timuel Black to help organize the Chicago contingent for the 1963 march on Washington
The group kept swelling as those who’d traveled to the capital by plane and car arrived and found the others. A hundred marchers from Hyde Park “fought their way thru massed demonstrators for about a quarter of a mile to the main party, arriving just as the march from the Washington monument to the Lincoln memorial began.”
The area was so packed that “it wasn’t so much a march as a continuous shuffle,” Ritch wrote. “It was impossible to take more than a six-inch step.” The marchers kept stumbling into each other, but remained “surprisingly good-humored.”
Demonstrators had begun congregating on the National Mall the night before. By ten o’clock on the morning of the march, 40,000 had gathered on the slopes around the Washington Monument, and an hour later the crowd had grown to 90,000. There was “an air of hootenanny about it as groups of schoolchildren clapped hands and swung into the familiar freedom songs,” the New York Times reported. But “the underlying tone was one of dead seriousness. The emphasis was on ‘freedom’ and ‘now.'”
Black and Rose were about 15 rows from the podium when the speeches began in the early afternoon. They recall a line of people sitting on the edge of the reflecting pool with their legs in the water.
There were ten speeches. “They were all good,” Black says. “But when Mr. Randolph introduced Dr. King, the whole area became quiet.”
Midway through his address, King shifted into the “I Have a Dream” segment, with the crowd roaring every time he said the phrase. He spoke of his dream that “on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood”; that his own four little children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”; that one day in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Timuel Black was moved to tears along with the people around him—they were “wiping their tears and shaking their heads and hugging.” He remembers the “feelings of kinship” that the speech evoked, across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. “It embodied the reason we were all there and what we were hoping for,” he says.
On the trip home, most of the coaches were quiet—”the first night of sound sleeping in two hectic days,” Ritch wrote. Leaders went through the cars, praising the marchers for their conduct.
“We have a right to be proud,” Black told Ritch. “We have shown the nation and the world something everybody told us couldn’t be done. They didn’t think we could get so many people to Washington. They told us that if we did, there was bound to be violence.
“But there was no violence,” Black said. “We marched with dignity.”
Most of the Chicagoans who went on the march hadn’t been actively involved in the civil rights movement before, Black told Ritch. He predicted it would be “a powerful stimulus for local campaigns to follow this one.”
In fact, after the train pulled into Chicago, some of the marchers proceeded directly to the Sun-Times to protest an editorial challenging blacks to stop their disruptive demonstrations. Within a couple weeks, march veterans and school activists began organizing the next round of school protests. “Even people who didn’t go to the March on Washington were very excited by it and by King and were ready to take the next step,” Rose says.
That October, they staged the largest school boycott in the nation’s history, with 225,000 students staying home from classes and thousands of parents marching on City Hall and the board of education office downtown.
The schools, however, remained segregated. And black Chicagoans, who were living in poor, segregated neighborhoods in 1963, still are. (More about this in our accompanying story.)
In 1964 and 1965, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts after more demonstrations in the south. But the broader movement soon fizzled. Riots by blacks in Los Angeles in 1965 and in Detroit and Newark in 1967 turned whites against the campaign. King moved to Chicago to fight housing segregation in 1965 and 1966, but left with little more than paper promises from Mayor Daley.
White civil rights activists also were gravitating increasingly to the protests against the war in Vietnam, which “drained energy” from the movement, Rose says.
As time went on, many of the demands of the March on Washington—for school desegregation, a livable minimum wage, a “massive” federal jobs program—went unmet. The civil rights laws brought “lots of social progress,” Rose says. “But the least progress was economic.”
Black agrees. “The masses of lower-income people did not get the jobs,” he says. He points to a gap between middle-class and poor African-Americans that’s grown since the 60s.
The March on Washington greatly boosted the hopes of blacks, he says. But it was able to do so because residents of poor neighborhoods back then saw possibilities around them. “We were poor, but we were not poverty stricken, because in our neighborhood, we could see doctors and lawyers and other professionals—successful people.” Residents of many of those neighborhoods today “do not see that kind of example.”
Yet both men continued their activism. Rose became an independent political consultant who engineered Jane Byrne’s upset mayoral win in 1979 (then disavowed her when she made amends with the old machine). Black kept teaching and campaigning for civil rights. He’s now finishing work on his autobiography, which will recount his life on the south side—he was eight months old when his family moved here from Birmingham in 1919.
They remain optimistic that new generations of activists can help in the fight for racial and economic equality in Chicago. As Black puts it: “The march, for me and I hope others, is symbolic of the possibilities.”