Doug Harris Remembers the March on Washington

Doug Harris“In the summer of 1963 my Hofstra College roommate, Roger Sencer, drove me to the Atlanta Georgia SNCC headquarters, for my new life as an SNCC volunteer.

The first person to welcome me into my new adventure was the Atlanta, Georgia SNCC office secretary, Judy Richardson who was as much an activist as all the other volunteers. After registering, she led me to the back room where Julian Bond waited to interview me. He pulled up a chair and did a brief rundown of what my life with SNCC would be like. Though, to expect the unexpected seemed to be the gist of what to expect. Julian also probed me about who I was. Why had I joined; what did I expect and what talents might I bring to the organization? He was very professional but also friendly. I learned I was to meet up with members of the newly formed “Freedom, Singers” – Reagan Cordell, Bernice Johnson, and Charles Nesbitt. I was to travel with them and take photos. That would serve as my initiation into the organization and the challenges we’d face. I remember tossing my bags into the trunk of their compact Plymouth and settling into the back seat as we headed off on a tour of the Deep South.

The first time I saw the SNCC-sponsored Freedom Singers was during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Five members of the vocal group, Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Matthew Jones, Charles Neblett, and Rutha Mae Harris were on the platform stage along with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Theodore Bikel. They joined forces to perform a spirited and deeply emotional, “We Shall Overcome” and were soon joined by a quarter of a million in attendance, including me. Though, truthfully, Baez’s searing voice rose above all others and pierced your soul. Their final song for the March for Freedom and Jobs was the spiritual, “Keep your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On,” which was sung in a call and response by the Freedom Singers.

Earlier that summer I was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village, Manhattan with a friend.  I recall traveling with them to the March on Washington in his car. And now, just a few months later, I was to travel with three members of the group as an official SNCC staff photographer, an organization funded, in part, by the Calypso singing sensation, Harry Bellefonte. We were to tour Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee to enjoin locals to not sit passively but to join the fight for freedom.

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round, turn me ’round, turn me ’round, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, Marching up to freedom land.”

Along with drawing a crowd with songs sung by the Freedom Singers, the purpose of the tour was a direct-action voter registration. Frequently, Attorney William Kunstler would tag along in case the police or town officials showed up to arrest the SNCC workers for disturbing the peace. We would set up in fields with black sharecroppers or parks or other locations where people might assemble. We would then proceed to both entertain and educate.”

Doug Harris

Learn more about Doug Harris’ work at The SNCC Photo Department