The passage of time reshapes our images and interpretations of events. I think that is true when it comes to the March. However, there is a picture in Danny Lyon’s book of photographs of the SNCC staff holding hands with crossed arms while singing “We Shall Overcome” after the March on Washington ended. Everyone else had gone home. Today, some forty years later, that picture reminds me of the loneliness of the battle, the small number of people who were really in the thick of the war against American apartheid, and the almost desolate landscape around us.
I have a lot of memories as well, especially since Courtland Cox and I worked on the March staff as SNCC representatives. As I recall, each civil rights organization was asked to send two people to New York to staff the planning under Bayard Rustin’s direction. I now realize that I learned a lot about organizing from Bayard that would help me throughout my professional life.
That summer Eleanor Holmes, a Yale Law student, my sister Dorie Ladner, and I shared Rachelle Horowitz’s one bedroom apartment. There were nights when I came in from the office exhausted and ready to sleep on the sofa, only to find that I had to wait until Bobby Dylan finished playing his guitar and trying out new songs he was working on before I could claim my bed. He and Dorie were good friends.
While Dorie worked as a fundraiser out of the New York SNCC office, Eleanor, Rachelle and I worked in the March office in Harlem. Courtland and I focused mostly on fundraising to bring as many Southern black people to the March as possible. I recall trips we made to towns in New Jersey, on Long Island and around Manhattan to speak about the horrible conditions in the South. We usually came back to the March headquarters with money to charter more busses.
We went to Washington the day before the March and we checked into the old Statler Hilton hotel on 16th Street. Malcolm X held forth in the Hilton hotel lobby all afternoon. I was absolutely mesmerized by him. So were a lot of others because there was a crowd of people around him all the time. I remember that he called the March on Washington the “Farce on Washington.” It gave me a lot to think about. Were we engaged in a farce? Had I spent the summer working on a cause that was nothing more than a show? I decided not.
I also remember the big flap about John’s speech. The archbishop was upset in particular about the part of the speech that invoked General Sherman’s “scorched earth” policy during the Civil War. John’s speech said something to the effect that if the violence did not stop, we would have no choice but to march through the South the way General Sherman did, burning everything in its wake. The Archbishop said he would not appear on the program if John kept the “scorched earth” section in his speech. Jim Forman, Mildred Forman, Courtland Cox and I were with John throughout this crisis. Other SNCC workers weighed in on the matter as well. As I recall, the late Tom Kahn played a major role in the speech writing and rewriting. Those out in the audience were aware of the conflict, and were quite angry about the demand that the speech be changed.
SNCC workers almost always went to the mat on issues that involved our principles and fundamental beliefs. We believed in the righteousness of our causes. We also felt that the Archbishop had not spent a single day in the dangerous communities in which we worked. Therefore, he had no right to “tell us” what to say. It occurs to me now that we probably had our first experience with negotiating a truce that day. John kept the part in the speech about marching through the South, however he said we would do so “nonviolently.”
However, none of us were satisfied with the compromise. Like Avon Rollins, I also have my yellow “Reserved Section” pass that allowed me to see the March from the vantage point of the Lincoln Memorial. Bayard was very democratic about who could be on the podium. There were union workers, civil rights leaders including Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, Whitney Young, and there were the celebrities of the day — Josephine Baker, who had flown in from Paris, the civil rights fundraisers Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Baldwin, Joan Baez, Bobby Dylan, Odetta, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando and Mahalia Jackson for starters…
What I remember most is standing on the podium looking out at the 250,000 people. It was a sight to behold. One had to see it to believe it. Despite the conflict over John’s speech, I felt emboldened because of the large number of people who came. I didn’t feel so isolated anymore. I was also very happy that our hard work that summer had led to such a great success.
I do not remember thinking that Dr. King’s speech was the most important thing that occurred that day. I think our disappointment over what we felt was SNCC’s speech — overshadowed everything else. We wanted our world views and our interpretations of what was important at the time to be heard as clearly as we saw and felt them. Like everything else with SNCC, the speech was viewed as our communal statement. There were a lot of angry and cynical SNCC workers in the audience.
I also remember when Lena Horne, whom I met at a sorority convention earlier that summer, took me by the hand and told Nancy Dickerson, the CBS correspondent to interview me instead of her. She said “this young lady lives in Mississippi.” This was the first time I understood the power of the media because Mother saw the interview on CBS news. I reasoned that if Mother could see the support for the March from our little hamlet of Palmers Crossing, (outside Hattiesburg) Mississippi, then surely she would feel that the commitment Dorie and I made to fight for justice was worth the price. I lived to see the day when she was more proud than frightened for us.