Courtland Cox Remembers the March on Washington

Courtland CoxMy involvement with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (MOW) began some 10 weeks before the August 28 gathering. I was contacted by Bayard Rustin, whom I first met when he debated Malcolm X at Howard University in 1961, to ask that I use my influence to get the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to participate in the upcoming MOW. In 1963, SNCC had decided to engage in voter registration drives in the Deep South, and it was reluctant to spend time and energy on the proposed demonstration. Because I knew of Bayard’s civil rights involvement in the 1950s and he also served as a trusted advisor for the Howard University chapter of SNCC, the Non-violent Action Group (NAG), I proposed to James Forman, SNCC Executive Director, that the organization should become a sponsor of the March.

After extensive discussions, SNCC agreed to be a sponsor of the March on Washington. Joyce Ladner, then 19 years old, and I, then 22 years old, interrupted our voter registration work in Mississippi and travelled to New York to help staff the eight-week sprint to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In July of 1963, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, promised to bring 100,000 people to Washington “to help resolve the American crisis born of the twin evils of racism and economic exploitation.

My responsibility for the March was to find transportation for people from the South. The task of transporting the Black communities was made more difficult since some Trailways and Greyhound bus drivers did not want to take the risk of driving Black people through the South because of the dangers involved. Despite the transportation difficulties, the Black communities from the South found their way to Washington, DC in large numbers to let America know that “they were sick and tired of racial and economic oppression.”

Courtland Cox

On the day of the March, I went to the Washington Mall with Bayard Rustin around 7:00 a.m. to get a lay of the land. There was no one on the Washington Mall and Bayard turned and asked me, “Do you think anyone is coming to this March?” As soon as he made that statement, a group of NAACP youth from Virginia appeared. The number of marchers did not stop until the MOW’s goal of 100,000 was more than doubled.

Later that morning, John Lewis, Jim Forman, Mildred Forman, Joyce Ladner and I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial to listen John’s speech. In order to maximize press attention to John’s speech, I distributed his statement on the evening of August 27. After reading John’s speech, the Kennedy Administration let it be known that it did not like the SNCC statement which read:

“In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges. What about the three young men in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?”

The Kennedy Administration wanted strong and enthusiastic support from the Civil Rights leadership for its proposed Civil Rights Bill. Therefore, SNCC’s statement was a problem. The Kennedy Administration sent word through Archbishop O’Boyle that John’s speech had to soften its negative tone about the Bill or the Catholic Church, one of the March sponsors, would pull out of the MOW.

In order not to disrupt the March, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph asked Jim Forman, John Lewis and me to consider revising John’s speech to mitigate some of the criticisms of the Kennedy Administration. Out of respect for the work of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, we agreed to edit the SNCC statement even though we knew that especially Jim Forman and I would face criticism from the SNCC staff who risked their lives while working in the hostile and anti-democratic South.

Associated Press photograph
Left to right: Bayard Rustin (Executive Director March on Washington:, Jack Greenberg (NAACP Legal Defense Fund), Whitney Young (Urban League), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality [CORE]), Roy Wilkins, (NAACP),
Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC), John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Courtland Cox (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]).
The Kennedy Administration hoped the passage of a Civil Rights Bill would put an end to the international problems the sit-ins and Freedom Rides were causing America. The newly de-colonized African countries expressed solidarity with African Americans. The Soviet Union and China embarrassed the United States at international organizations. America could no longer preach to the world about democracy while many of its Black citizens were not allowed to vote. Therefore, the Kennedy Administration was desperate to get the Congress to pass a bill ending discrimination in public accommodations.

While A. Philip Randolph, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and SNCC were focused on the March’s demands for Jobs and Freedom for the Black communities, the NAACP and the Urban League saw the March as a way to support the Kennedy Administration’s Civil Rights legislation.

Courtland Cox

The Kennedy Administration pushed the NAACP to turn the MOW into a rally for its proposed Civil Rights Bill. At one of the March on Washington leadership meetings, Roy Wilkins proposed to the body that President Kennedy should address the March. It was only the quick thinking of Bayard Rustin that saved the day. He who told the Leadership that given the attitude and suffering of the Black community that someone might attempt to “stone the President.” The proposal for the President to speak was withdrawn.

After working with Jim Forman and John Lewis on revising his speech and listening to John deliver the SNCC statement, I was able to relax. That afternoon, I looked around and saw over 100 movie stars that Harry Belafonte had brought to the March. I was able to hear Mahalia Jackson engage in a call and response with Martin Luther King, Jr.

After the March ended, I gathered with other SNCC staff at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and we joined hands and sang, “We Shall Overcome.” While the majority of the SNCC staff returned South, I went back to my hotel room where I was able to really listen and fully appreciate King’s speech expressing the hope of millions of Black Americans.