A Roundup of Great Things to Read About the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.


As you may have noticed from the wall-to-wall media coverage, today is the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on Washington. We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting stuff out there to read on the topic.

First up is the speech itself:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The New Yorker‘s Calvin Trillin’s piece on the march is also available on their website:

An ice-cream truck had managed to drive to within a hundred feet of the Monument and was starting to do an early-morning business. Many of those gathered near the Monument were sitting on the grass, and some were sleeping. Three boys dressed in khaki pants and shirts with button-down collars were using their knapsacks for pillows and had covered their faces with black derbies. There were, we thought, surprisingly few knapsacks and sandals in the crowd. Most of the people were neatly dressed, and as they waited for the pre-march program to start, they acted like ordinary tourists in Washington, or like city people spending a warm Sunday in the park.

Here is a (likely unauthorized) blog reprint of Alex Haley’s interview with Martin Luther King for Playboy:

PLAYBOY: One of the highlights of that campaign was your celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — written during one of your jail terms for civil disobedience — an eloquent reply to eight Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen who had criticized your activities in Birmingham. Do you feel that subsequent events have justified the sentiments expressed in your letter? MARTIN LUTHER KING: I would say yes. Two or three important and constructive things have happened which can be at least partially attributed to that letter. By now, nearly a million copies of the letter have been widely circulated in churches of most of the major denominations. It helped to focus greater international attention upon what was happening in Birmingham. And I am sure that without Birmingham, the march on Washington wouldn’t have been called — which in my mind was one of the most creative steps the Negro struggle has taken. The march on Washington spurred and galvanized the consciences of millions. It gave the American Negro a new national and international stature. The press of the world recorded the story as nearly a quarter of a million Americans, white and black, assembled in grandeur as a testimonial to the Negro’s determination to achieve freedom in this generation. It was also the image of Birmingham which, to a great extent, helped to bring the Civil Rights Bill into being in 1963. Previously, President Kennedy had decided not to propose it that year, feeling that it would so arouse the South that it would meet a bottleneck. But Birmingham, and subsequent developments, caused him to reorder his legislative priorities. One of these decisive developments was our last major campaign before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act — in St. Augustine, Florida. We received a plea for help from Dr. Robert Hayling, the leader of the St. Augustine movement. St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and one of the most segregated cities in America, was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Such things had happened as Klansmen abducting four Negroes and beating them unconscious with clubs, brass knuckles, ax handles and pistol butts. Dr. Hayling’s home had been shot up with buckshot, three Negro homes had been bombed and several Negro night clubs shotgunned. A Negro’s car had been destroyed by fire because his child was one of the six Negro children permitted to attend white schools. And the homes of two of the Negro children in the white schools had been burned down. Many Negroes had been fired from jobs that some had worked on for 28 years because they were somehow connected with the demonstrations. Police had beaten and arrested Negroes for picketing, marching and singing freedom songs. Many Negroes had served up to 90 days in jail for demonstrating against segregation, and four teenagers had spent six months in jail for picketing. Then, on February seventh of last year, Dr. Hayling’s home was shotgunned a second time, with his pregnant wife and two children barely escaping death; the family dog was killed while standing behind the living-room door. So S.C.L.C. decided to join in last year’s celebration of St. Augustine’s gala 400th birthday as America’s oldest city—by converting it into a nonviolent battleground. This is just what we did.

You can read the entire transcript of the PBS documentary “Citizen King” here:

ANDREW YOUNG: Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph had talked about a march on Washington for years. So, Bayard called and asked if he could come down and meet with us. And that Mr. Randolph was willing to lead and organize this March on Washington. WALTER FAUNTROY, SCLC Staff: My first conversation with Bobby Kennedy… he said, “Look, you all should — really shouldn’t be doing this. You know, there’s too many things that can happen. Just little people can … can disturb it, you could have the town burning and it won’t work.” RAMSEY CLARK, U.S. Justice Department: I think the Kennedy Administration, and certainly Robert Kennedy and the President had enormous respect for Dr. King. And um, they were hopeful about the March. But they didn’t feel that they could afford to be clearly identified with it.

This DemocracyNow interview, with Gloria Richardson, a civil rights activist who is in this iconic photo shoving a soldier’s bayonet aside, is great:

Yes, he was going to stab me, so I had to push it. But anyhow, and that came because we were not supposed to be demonstrating — out there to demonstrate, and we had been at a little shoeshine shop with General Gelston, with him trying to stop — tell us, no, and we’re trying to say, yes, we’re going to do it when a whole lot of — we thought they were bullets, I don’t know what he thought. He may have known what it was, but it happened to be tear gas. But, when we — I rushed out and all the people were in the street. Then this guy started coming toward me. I thought, he has got to be crazy. I don’t even know why I pushed the gun, but I know I was furious at that time.

Here, too, is a white journalist’s firsthand reminiscence at The Atlantic:

A half-century ago this week, on August 28, 1963, five days after my 17th birthday, my parents dropped me off at the South Norwalk station of what was then the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad to board a special train headed for Washington and history — not that we had a clue about the historic nature of that summer day.

Today in the New York Times, Mary Dudziak remembers a satellite gathering in Paris:

In response to a call by the writer James Baldwin for his fellow Americans living in Paris to support the civil rights march, more than a hundred people — including the blues musician Memphis Slim and the actor William Marshall — crowded into the club for a meeting. The atmosphere was electric. The group believed that the pressure of foreign opinion could play a critical role in the civil rights movement, and they gathered to figure out how to energize it.

Elizabeth Hardwick wrote about King’s funeral in the NYRB:

The decaying, downtown shopping section of memphis — still another Main Street — lay, the weekend before Martin Luther King’s funeral, under a siege. The deranging curfew and that state of civic existence called “tension” made the town seem to be sinister, like some long considered and carefully constructed film set of alienation, breakdown, catastrophe. The scene was empty, yet alive with possibilities for appalling drama. In the silence, the sudden horn of a tug gliding up the dark Mississippi made one jump. The hotel was a tomb, shabby, poorly staffed by aged persons, not grown old in their duties, but newly hired, untrained, depressed, wornout old people. The march was called for the next day, a march originally planned by King as a renewal of his efforts in the Memphis garbage strike, efforts interrupted by a riot the week before. Perhaps there was fear, and yet a humidity of smugness seemed to hang over the white people. Curfew, National Guard, dire warnings, kids home from school, bank and ten-cent store closed: if one was not in clear danger there seemed a complacent pleasure in thinking WE have been brought to this by THEM. “You! You there in the yard. You git back in here!”