The March on Washington, which took place 50 years ago this month, is bathed in a warm glow for good reason. But the story of that day, beyond Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, is surprising, funny, poignant.
Here are a few secrets—or little-remarked-upon aspects—of the day worth keeping in mind as the 50th-anniversary commemorations approach.
King's Speech Was Improvised—and Edgy.
All schoolkids are taught the "content of their character" part of King's address. After the march, when John F. Kennedy welcomed King and other civil-rights leaders to the White House, he said to the reverend: "I have a dream." "That was like Kennedy saying 'You nailed it,'" says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer prize-winning King biographer.
King knew he had hit his mark, Branch told National Journal Daily. But while the "dream" section of the speech is best-remembered, the first part of King's speech had been an angry lament about the condition of blacks in America, which he likened to a check returned for insufficient funds.
The "dream" portion of the speech was semi-improvised. King had used the dream idea before, in speeches earlier in 1963, including one to black insurance agents. King owes a debt to the Bible's Book of Isaiah, from which he borrowed. But much of the speech that day was original. King also left out some of the angrier and clunkier lines from his prepared speech. For example: "And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction."
For what it's worth, The New York Times gave King top billing the next day. The Washington Post devoted its front page to other leaders of the march.
D.C. Was Ready for Riots.
The prospect of all of those protesters coming to Washington scared the crap out of the District of Columbia. As Branch has noted, there were not only 4,000 federal troops poised in D.C. and 15,000 paratroopers on standby, but the city's liquor stores were closed for the first time since Prohibition.
Most D.C. businesses shut down for the day. Of course, the day turned out to be incredibly peaceful. Newspapers favored the word "orderly." And it was, which helped give the civil-rights movement even more moral force. The organizers of the march even offered to help clean up afterwards, but the National Park Service, which controls the monument, turned them down.
A Gay Man Led the Way.
The organizing genius behind the March on Washington was civil-rights veteran Bayard Rustin. What is less-known now, or then, is that he was gay. That might have not been known at all had Rustin not been arrested on what were then called morals charges (he was arrested in 1953 along with two other men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif.)
King had kept Rustin at a distance under pressure from other black leaders. The late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem had forced Rustin off of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, didn't want Rustin running the 1963 march.
But Rustin's mentor, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, insisted. It was Randolph's idea to have a March on Washington in 1941 to protest segregation—and it was called off only when President Roosevelt desegregated the defense industry. So when the idea surfaced of a March on Washington in 1963, to demand justice on the 100th anniversary of the end of slavery, Randolph's word counted above all others. And it was Rustin who did much of the speaking that August day.
Sen. Strom Thurmond denounced Rustin as a communist and homosexual in a floor statement, but the press didn't pick it up. Rustin died in 1987 and President Obama will present him, posthumously, with the Medal of Freedom.
Automation and Labor Were a Factor.
It's often forgotten that the March on Washington was a march for freedom and jobs. The unemployment rate that August was 5.4 percent, low by today's standards but higher than it had been earlier in the '60s; then, as now, black unemployment remained much higher than the national index.
Many of the speakers at the March on Washington inveighed against "automation" displacing workers—a harbinger of today's outsourcing. But despite the jobs focus, organized labor was divided. Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, was one of the official leaders of the march, and he led his own rally in Michigan earlier that summer.
But despite UAW enthusiasm—and Randolph was, of course, also a union leader—the AFL-CIO was AWOL. George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, didn't support the march, and the AFL-CIO's offices were shuttered that day. The marchers called for nondiscrimination not only in public facilities like restaurants but also in unions, and many of those represented by the AFL-CIO, especially the building trades, shut out blacks.
Women Had a Separate March.
There was just one official woman speaker at the March on Washington. There were women singers, including Marian Anderson, who had been famously blocked from speaking before the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 and was invited to speak at the Lincoln Memorial by Eleanor Roosevelt.
There was a separate march on Independence Avenue for women in the movement that included Dorothy Height, the late leader of the Council of Negro Women.
John Lewis Rewrote His Speech.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil-rights veteran, will be everywhere during the anniversary, an elder statesman of the movement.
In August 1963, Lewis was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the leaders of the march scheduled to speak that day. But the night before the rally, other leaders caught a glimpse of his remarks. The first version of his speech incensed many of the other leaders of the march, including UAW's Reuther, who thought it would backfire on the movement by alienating allies and giving enemies a lot to work with.
Lewis, in his original text, said that President Kennedy's civil-rights plan was "too little, too late" and it called for the civil- rights workers to march through Dixie "like Sherman." Would Lewis's unspoken words have changed the day? Would King's?
We'll never know.