I journeyed to the march from New Haven CT on a bus chartered by CORE. We boarded the bus around 10pm and headed down I-95. Everyone was tense. Today, history knows how the march turned out, but as we rolled south that night we had no clue what we were headed into. A significant portion of the news media was in full panic mode over the march. “Alert the 101st Airborne! Close the liquor stores! Hide the white women!” And a lot of the media were running stories that only a small number of people would show up, that the Civil Rights Movement was a hoax, that it was just a handful of malcontents, outside-agitators, and so on, yada, yada, yada.
It was deep in the night, pitch dark, when we got our first inkling of what we were about to become part of. We were on some big bridge, maybe the one over the Delaware river, maybe the Susquehanna. The bus began to slow and I could see up ahead a red glow, like some kind of fire burning. As we came off the bridge we passed 20 or 30 people on the embankment holding flaming highway flares aloft and waving signs saying, “We’re With You,” “God Speed,” “March For Us.” They were cheering the buses on. We instantly realized they were folks who couldn’t participate in the march because it was a weekday — a workday — but they’d gotten up before dawn to show their support. I can’t describe how emotional that was for me, but I know it’s a memory I’ll treasure to day I die.
To a man (and they were almost all men), the members of Congress stridently proclaimed that the march would not influence their legislative votes one iota. But granny-wisdom reminds us, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Reconstruction had ended 86 years earlier and in those 86 years, not a single piece of effective race-related civil rights legislation had been signed into law. (The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were watered-down semi-shams.) But in the two years after the March on Washington the two most far-reaching and effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — were passed. Not due to the march alone, of course, but to the entire Freedom Movement as a whole. Yet it was the march, I believe, that showed wavering northern legislators that their constituents — both Black and white — not only cared about civil rights but were watching how they voted.
The march also had another beneficial effect, less clearly understood at the time perhaps, but no less significant. In 1963, fear of Communist subversion still dominated the political thinking of a great many whites. Most African Americans had long since dismissed “red menace” and “Communist plot” smears against the Civil Rights Movement by racist segregationists like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. But those kinds of Red-baiting attacks still influenced a large number of whites. Now, at least for some of the millions who watched the March and King’s entire 19-minute speech live on national TV — and heard for the first time, not just a few sound bites but the full content of a freedom sermon — slanders of foreign subversion and secret Soviet plots begin to lose their credibility.