In 1963 I had been working for SNCC in Southwest Georgia when I suffered a collapsed lung. I went back to my alma mater Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to recover, which involved lying in bed for 3 months. There was a great buzz on campus that summer about the upcoming March on Washington. Like most SNCC organizers I was very dubious about it. I had been at a conference with SNCC and SCLC people in Georgia about a year earlier called by Bayard Rustin. He and Martin Luther King brought up the idea of a March, and most of us thought it would be a diversion from the real work, which was organizing. We thought this is just another example of SCLC mobilizing without any kind of clear idea of how demonstrations would affect the power structure.
I remember somebody got up and said why should we march between two dead white presidents in Washington when we could be down here organizing to change the power structure, to help people get the right to vote. I left that conference with that idea. But then a year later, back in Yellow Springs, the largely white student body and community were talking about this March. I thought well, it’s not gonna do much good, but following the people, I helped organize a delegation from Yellow Springs and nearby Dayton, Ohio.
I spoke at various Quaker meetings and Unitarian services, produced a lot of leaflets which we distributed to stores, and in Dayton gave them to various liberal congregations. We had people in each congregation in charge of getting people to go. Over 250 people signed up between the two locations. We rented several busses. We left Ohio in the afternoon of August 27 and rode all night to get to Washington. We arrived at the March and saw up and down the Reflecting Pool people everywhere. We quickly understood it was the largest march ever! The size of the crowd was more important than any speech or entertainment. The Dayton delegation was standing in the middle of the crowd, it was hard to hear or see anything. The size of the crowd energized me, the fact that there were so many people together and nobody was yelling or threatening told me that something was changing in America. The size of the crowd gave me new faith in America. I was very aware that Kennedy was watching the crowd.
What we wanted, as civil rights workers, from the federal administration was protection. One of the purposes of the march was to show Kennedy that there were enough voters in favor of what we were doing that he could send protection.
It was very hot. The Mall was dusty from the huge crowd of people. But the huge crowd was what made the March a success. I was standing in the middle of the Mall with the delegation from Dayton and Yellow Springs. I saw people from all walks of life, working people, union people, African Americans, church groups.
We were sweating, it was a hot and muggy day. The first speaker was Bayard Rustin who introduced the March and went over the program. (At the conference in Georgia the year before, he and MLK Jr were my roommates at the conference center. ) The march went on and on, with speaker after speaker. Then King came on. He started to give a rather academic speech, and people were beginning to leave, it was so hot. Then he went in to his I have a dream talk. My impression was that he must have come to the conclusion himself that this was not a very important event because he was repeating something I had heard him say before, about the dream. In fact, it was one of the greatest speeches ever made in America.
It was in fact a turning point in the civil rights movement. The march helped build nationwide support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and many other progressive laws and policies. It brought people together who had never come together in person before. I had actually been at the first march on Washington, the Youth March for Integrated Schools, called by A. Philip Randolph in 1958, I was with a group of teenagers from Philadelphia. That was one of the reasons I was skeptical of this March because I had been at the other one and it didn’t seem to do much good.
When King was talking, I remember thinking I wish he had said I Have a Plan, instead of a dream. If he had presented a plan that would have been a collective action of some sort.
There was another part of his speech that did speak to me, a part that is overlooked a lot. What he said was: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
That was his call to organize. I believe that is what the take away from the speech should be. Go back to your homes and organize. That was King’s call at the march. That inspired me, and I have been trying to heed King’s call all the rest of my life.
I went back to work with SNCC in Holly Springs, Mississippi later that year in ’63 and then I moved back to Holly Spring two years ago where I’m organizing again.
Via Sharlene Kranz telephone interview with Larry Rubin, 8/24/2023.