In August of 1963 Bob Zellner and I had married in Atlanta and were returning from a California honeymoon by car when the March on Washington occurred. We decided to attend en route to Cambridge, MA, where Bob was starting graduate school at Brandeis and I was to run the Northeast Regional office of SNCC out of a church at Harvard Square. I don’t remember having any feelings that this was going to be a historic event, it was just another big demonstration.
During the hours before the program started we were standing outside in the area of the Lincoln monument and heard that there was “trouble” about John Lewis’ speech and that Forman and others were negotiating about what it would contain. Specifically we heard that the phrase “marching like Sherman toward the sea” had alarmed some people. Not much later we learned that the speech was a “go.” I pretty much accepted whatever deal our SNCC leadership had made.
We were in a section near and in front of the rostrum—I believe we were seated in chairs and it might have been a section for civil rights workers from SNCC and other organizations—and so had an excellent view. Of course Dr. King gave an excellent rousing speech–but since he was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, this was not news. In fact, it didn’t sound much different to me from other speeches of his that I had heard. As for John’s speech, even though parts of it had been censored, I thought it was strong.
What I remember most clearly of all was Josephine Baker, who appeared at the microphone in her French Army uniform, which she had received after winning the Legion of Honor for her heroic deeds in the French underground during World War II. And of course, there were Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno and the other movie stars, that was pretty exceptional.
At the time I didn’t know that President Kennedy and others feared violence would erupt at the March (as if any time large number of Black people congregate, violence is bound to happen!). What struck me most was not only the overwhelming peacefulness of the event but the extreme dignity and “upstandingness,” if there is such a word, of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Black people who were there. Their demeanor said: We belong here. This is our country. This is what we want. This is what we’re going to have.