It was organized in only a few weeks and lasted just 10 hours. The American president was only reluctantly on board with it and many among the public expected it to deteriorate into riots. But destiny was not to be denied on that hot August day: The 1963 March on Washington was, as the new PBS documentary “The March” rightly concludes, “the event that changed American politics forever.”
The film, airing Tuesday night, Aug 27, lasts only an hour, but it easily proves its point about the lasting historical significance of the march, which drew between 200,000 and 300,000 people – black and white – for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
It wasn’t just that there were that many people in attendance, or that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech for which he will be remembered for all time: It was that the march rescued the civil rights movement from losing its moment in history, as author Taylor Branch says, by fulfilling A. Philip Randolph’s call to make civil rights a truly national cause.
Produced by Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, directed by John Akomfra and narrated by Denzel Washington, “The March” is not only a timely film document, it is also properly structured as the great drama that the march was. Of course, through the entire story, we are waiting for the grand finale, which can only be King’s speech. When it comes, you’ll be hard-pressed to withhold tears, not only because of the power of King’s words and his heroic cultural status, but because the filmmakers have carefully prepped us to understand just a little of the great struggle that led to those moments on the afternoon King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
The entire history of the African American struggle is far too complex and detailed to be contained in a single hour, much less in just part of one as a prelude to the march. So the filmmakers begin in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., considered the most segregated city in the U.S. Clarence B. Jones, MLK’s attorney and adviser, calls the city “Bomb-ingham” in the film because of the number of unsolved bombings in the city. Andrew Young tells about a black teenage boy stopped while riding his bike by a gang of whites and castrated on the spot, and of a young black couple returning from getting their marriage license, who happened to brush by a local cop: the prospective bridegroom was pistol-whipped.
The face of segregation was Birmingham Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Conner, who said he’d “die trying” to block any attempt to dismantle segregation in his city. When images of Conner’s men turning fire hoses and setting attack dogs on black demonstrators hit national TV news, many Americans saw for the first time the level of brutality invested in preserving separatism in the South.
Nonetheless, the rights movement was treading water at the time. How could it be re-invigorated? How could it become effective in changing laws, hearts and minds?
The movement got a new wave of energy when teenagers and young African Americans became politicized and joined the battle. But to go forward, the movement turned to its own past and one of its greatest leaders, Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Decades earlier, he’d been invited to the White House to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt to talk about his battle to end discriminatory hiring practices by U.S. military contractors.
At the time, Randolph called for a national march on Washington. It didn’t occur then, largely because FDR wasted no time signing an executive order banning discrimination in hiring by government contractors and establishing the fair employment practices committee.
Twenty-two years later, the civil rights movement revived Randolph’s call for a national march and the first organizing committee meeting was held July 1 at the apartment of Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protege and a key figure in the rights movement.
Many wanted Rustin to head the organizing effort for the march, but others opposed it because Rustin was a former member of a communist organization and openly gay. Randolph, the movement’s elder statesman, was named convener of the march and Rustin became his hands-on deputy.
The march had to be organized in just eight weeks, but the goal was met, largely by volunteers working 18-hour days and by field organizer Norman Hill traveling all over the country to create local coalitions of various civil rights groups.
Entertainer Harry Belafonte worked his industry, enlisting support from heavyweights like Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and others. On the day of the march, studios all over Hollywood suspended production to allow their talent to head to Washington on chartered planes.
The film benefits from first-hand memories by participants like Congressman John Lewis, Joan Baez, Norman Hill, Belafonte, Julian Bond, Diahann Carroll, Andrew Young, newsman Roger Mudd, who covered the march as a fledging CBS reporter, and Rachelle Horowitz, the longtime Rustin aide who was the transportation organizer for the march.
We know about the march today largely through King’s speech. The PBS film gives us greater perspective and insight, probing the conflicted attitudes toward civil rights in the Kennedy administration.
Of course, there is much more the documentary could have explored, such as how the march fits in one of the single most decisive years in American history, a year that saw the death of Medgar Evers, and, later on, the death of a president. In a brief afterword, the film includes footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, first proposed on June 11, 1963, by Kennedy as an anti-segregation bill. Kennedy went on TV that very night, telling American TV viewers that “race has no place in American life or law.”
Hearing that today, no thinking person can help acknowledging how far we’ve come, yes, but also asking themselves how much farther we have yet to go. How accurate are Kennedy’s words 50 years later? Viewing “The March” is complete only if we ask ourselves that question.