The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been rightfully memorialized as an iconic moment in American history, particularly as the venue for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Yet a deeper look at the March on Washington can offer a richer understanding of what made the Civil Rights Movement possible, and what organizers today can emulate in the ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice. Beyond the leading lights of the day such as Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and A. Phillip Randolph, was a multiracial, working class movement that drew together unions and churches, student organizations, and more. Larry S. Gibson and Marc Steiner, both of whom attended the March on Washington 60 years ago, look back on that day and the lessons to be found in the grooves of a history too often presented as one-dimensional.
Larry S. Gibson is a lawyer, political organizer, and former Associate Deputy Attorney General for President Jimmy Carter.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Marc Steiner: I’m Marc Steiner and we’re here in Washington, DC. It’s the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. It happened on August 28 and I was here, literally in the spot where I’m standing now. I was 50, 60 feet that way, standing with the folks from Baltimore, Maryland in Cambridge, Maryland. Our buses were parked about two or three blocks away.
If you look around here, you imagine what this place was like with 250,000 people. 250,000 people all around this mall, everywhere. The joke some of us had was we were between the Lincoln Memorial, Freedom, and the Ku Klux Klan, which was the Washington Memorial. Look at that memorial. Does it look like the Klan? It looks like the Klan. So that was the image some of us had, at least on the more radical side.
It was this huge interracial crew, Black, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican, men, women of all ages. It’s hard to imagine the breadth of people that were here, from union officials to revolutionary activists. There was something that people don’t talk about enough which is that there was a socialist air to it all. If you read the speeches and listen to the speeches, there was a socialist air to them, demands for workers to have rights, demands for unions to be able to unionize, demands for Black folks to be at unions and make a living wage, demands to end slave wages in America.
That was all part of this because it began as a march for jobs and then it expanded when the civil rights movement got in it, and it became jobs and freedom. So it was this massive, broad, group of people that America had never seen. America had never ever seen this before, ever.
A. Philip Randolf: I think history was written today, which will have its effect on coming generations with respect to our democracy, with respect to our ideals, with respect to the great struggle of man toward freedom and human dignity.
Marc Steiner: Welcome back. I’m Marc Steiner, and welcome back to The Marc Steiner Show. That little video you saw, it’s the beginning of this, of what we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to turn ourselves back to 60 years and talk about wherever you are now. The March on Washington took place when my friend Larry Gibson and I were much younger.
Larry Gibson is with us. He’s a University of Maryland law school professor, longest-serving professor at the law school, still teaching. They can’t get him out. He doesn’t want to go out. He wants to stay there and do what he’s doing. He’s there. He’s the author of Young Thurgood: Making of a Supreme Court Justice, working now on his second book on Thurgood Marshall. A scholar, a man who put mayors into office, and more, in his lifetime. Larry, this is fun to have you here, man.
Larry Gibson: It’s fun. I’m looking forward to this. I can’t believe that 60 years have passed since the March on Washington, but my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Marc Steiner: Max Alvarez is here, he’s the editor-in-chief here at The Real News. Guess what, folks? He’s taking over today.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I kicked Marc out of the host chair. So, I hope everyone will forgive me. I really didn’t want to miss this incredible opportunity. As you mentioned, Marc, we were down in DC shooting what viewers and listeners –
Marc Steiner: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: – Just heard yesterday. We are releasing this special edition of The Marc Steiner Show on August 28, 2023: 60 years to the day from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the most storied days in American history, one of the most impactful days in American history, and both of you were there on the National Mall by the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve only heard about this incredible day my entire life, seeing pictures in black and white. As a millennial, you assume that it’s so far back in history that –
Marc Steiner: That nobody’s alive [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: – Well, because that’s how it’s taught.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: Then, the very fact that I’m literally sitting here with both of you to talk about your memories of that day, what led up to it, and to talk about the legacy of the March on Washington. I want to underline for people watching and listening to this that it wasn’t that long ago, right?
Marc Steiner: No.
Maximillian Alvarez: We’re here having an intergenerational dialogue but we have so much to learn from you both and so much of the struggle that brought y’all to Washington 60 years ago. As you mentioned in that video, Marc, we’re still fighting those fights today. So, I want us to talk about all of that in the next 45 minutes that I’ve got with you both. I wanted to thank you, Larry, and thank you Marc for humoring me and sitting down and chatting with me today on Marc’s show for this commemorative special edition of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
There’s so much that I could say about that day but I feel like because it’s such a memorable moment in American history, there’s a lot of context that people have absorbed by living here, by hearing about it so much. I know there’s also a lot that we haven’t heard about and there are a lot of details about the buildup to the march, and the state of the country at that moment that has been lost to history.
So, I want to talk to you guys about your memories of that moment. We’re going to go in three stages: We’re going to talk about the buildup to August 28, and we’re going to talk about the day itself and what you guys remember about it, what sticks out to you. Then, we’ll talk about the legacy of that day and the state of the struggle 60 years later.
So without further ado, I wanted to turn it back to you both and ask, all the way up until August 28, 1963, so up until August 27, 1963, who were you at that moment? What do you remember about yourself? What brought you to Washington? Tell us about what you remember about the buildup to this day, how it happened, how the event almost didn’t happen, and anything else that comes to memory that you think folks out there watching and listening probably haven’t heard in the popular telling of this history. So Larry, why don’t we start with you?
Larry Gibson: Well, I was a student at Howard University. I was active with a group that we called the Nonviolent Action Group, which became the Washington chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of our classmates would leave school and go South. So I remember most of our activity prior to that involved sitting and sitting mainly in restaurants and other places of public accommodation.
Some of those involved coming back here to Baltimore. I’m a Baltimoreon but I was a student at Howard. I very much enjoyed it when we came back here and sat in. In fact, there was one memorable occasion when my group had five restaurants we were responsible for. I remember one was the Harvey House, the Eager House, the Gorsuch Lounge. Our last one was the Oriole Cafeteria, 5300 block over on York Road. My group was four, maybe five people. I think it was four of us.
Unlike the other places, this was a cafeteria. Before we would go in, they would kick us out and our group had to get to all five. So if you’re going to get arrested, the instruction was you couldn’t get arrested until you’ve got to your fifth restaurant [Marc laughs]. Well, we get to the Oriole Cafeteria and we walk right in. There was nobody at the door. Around the right side, there was food. So, we grabbed things and went back to where the cashier was expecting to get kicked out. They started ringing it up [all laugh].
Well, first of all, I didn’t have the money. I had to borrow some money to pay for my food. Worse than that, as we sat there looking, expecting the cops to come at any minute, I looked down at this meal that I had grabbed. It was baked fish. I’d never had baked fish. Fish in my family was fried and it was brown. This was yellow, and it had some sauce on it. The other was, what I’ve come to call my sitting salad. It was that salad that had carrots, raisins, and mayonnaise. It actually has a name. In fact, I’m getting angry. You know y’all don’t serve Black people … [All laugh] You trying to embarrass me? When you go and kick us out of this? The interesting thing is I discovered later that, that building has been broken down and there’s a CVS there. That’s the CVS that I currently use for medicines.
Anyway, getting back to the march. Much of the planning of the march was at Howard University because it was going to be in Washington. You had lots of civil rights involved students around Nonviolent Action Group. I remember distinctly a couple of meetings when Bayard Rustin came. One of them, A. Philip Randolph came with him. I’ll never forget A. Philip Randolph’s voice.
Marc Steiner: Oh, yeah.
Larry Gibson: He had a powerful, distinct voice. Another close friend of Bayard Rustin was a good friend of mine named Tom Kahn. As they planned the logistics I was impressed with the little details that they were talking about. I was accustomed to participating in demonstrations where the issue was, where are we going to start marching and where are we going to end marching? No, they were planning the spot-a-pots and the various health stations, and the little minute details that were necessary to pull this thing off. So that was my recollection that we had been mainly demonstrating. Now, these were sit-down planning of meetings.
The most planning I’d done with civil rights demonstrations is who’s your team? If you want to sit in this restaurant, are we going to get arrested or not? That would be the extent of our planning. No, this was very careful planning how to carry this thing out and I was impressed with the level and the detail.
Maximillian Alvarez: Marc, what about you?
Marc Steiner: Where was I? ’63 was a seminal year in my life. It was the year I was expelled from high school [laughs]. School was not on the top of my agenda in ’63. It was either being part of the civic interest group, which was Baltimore’s arm of SNCC like NAG was in Washington that did Route 40 Freedom Rides. What I’ve done in Route 40, trying to integrate restaurants and where I got my first broken nose.
Then, we also had the citizens in Baltimore and voter registration campaigns and all the stuff we were working on. We worked with our assist organization in Cambridge, Maryland, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Group, which was Gloria Richardson, who was this larger-than-life figure who ran the movement there. So, I was involved in all that. I was also at that point, the joke is I was a teenage trot. I was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance. I joined that when I was 15. So, I was deeply involved in all movement stuff. The March on Washington … So I was part of a civic interest group and we had our own bus that went down from Sharp Street Methodist Church which is where the headquarters of CIG was off of Pennsylvania Avenue. Which was, for the folks not in Baltimore, I’d say it was Baltimore’s 125th Street. It was the main drag in the west side of the Black world.
So, it was a hot day. The funniest part of that being a hot day was that going to DC, I was trying to look good. I was 17. I wanted to look good. So I had this long sleeve knit shirt on, and it was not the shirt to wear on a summer-
Maximillian Alvarez: In the middle of August, you think? [laughs]
Marc Steiner: I looked good but it was bad and that was terrible. So, I had to take the shirt off and walk around in my T-shirt because it was too hot. Anyway, we were down near the front and we were there with other activists from Cambridge as well, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee because Gloria Richardson was on stage. They gave her one word. We can talk more about that later, some of the intricacies of what happened behind the scenes.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, we’ll get to the day itself in a second.
Marc Steiner: That year, I was really active in the movement. I had been arrested in Cambridge. I had been beaten up in Cambridge. We were organizing here, urging the people to vote. So I was deeply involved in the movement during that year and I was gone for part of that summer because I had to be sent away to finish high school and I had to go to a summer school. I was chomping at the bit to get back and I got back and jumped right into the movement. That year was a movement year for me. That’s what I was doing.
Maximillian Alvarez: So before we get to the day, August 28, I want to pause on that for one more second because again, I’m trying to think about this as a millennial. I’m trying to imagine what it took to get that many people to DC before the internet, how you do that organizing, and how people get drawn into it. Maybe they see a flyer at a coffee shop or on their campus somewhere, word of mouth. I wanted to ask about that. Through your eyes, did you guys feel like it was a natural thing to get involved in politics? Were your friends getting involved in it? How did you all even hear about the March on Washington? How did hundreds of thousands of people hear about it?
Marc Steiner: Go ahead. Do you want to go first?
Larry Gibson: Well, the March was put on by a coalition of organizations. Organizations may have significance in a way that maybe people don’t have now. Many people were members of the NAACP or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Urban League, and then the labor movements. The unions were strong. In fact at the march itself, I was surprised at the large presence of unions.
My activity had all been among predominantly Black groups dealing with public accommodations and things such as that. The group that I watched from the Washington Monument up to the Lincoln Memorial was mostly labor people. I hadn’t fully understood that. So, the unions played a big role. Churches played a big role. So people didn’t have the internet but there were large numbers of organizations that were effective that people participated in.
I remember during one of the planning periods being confused by the name. The name of the March on Washington is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I understood the freedom part but I hadn’t fully understood the role of the labor movement. For some reason, that stuck with me. It even, I thought to me at one point, suggested should be freedom in jobs. Yes, it took me a while to fully understand the fair employment practices and the jobs in part of the March on Washington. Frankly, even afterward, I was still a little not fully understanding of the name, the March for Jobs and Freedom.
Maximillian Alvarez: Marc, I know we’ve talked about a bit of your own past and how even from a very young age your mom instilled in you this sense of justice that led you to get involved in the fight for civil rights. For white and people beyond Black civil rights activists like Larry’s talking about, how did you and others get involved in that struggle leading up to the March on Washington?
Marc Steiner: Well, one of the things was that the word came out through organizations. We were in the civic interest group. Around the corner were the NAACP, Jackie Robinson Youth League, and the NAACP headquarters. That’s how it got organized. It was through these organizations. People picked up the phone. They mailed things. They had meetings [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: What’s that? [Laughs]
Marc Steiner: Right. It’s really different. So it was really done in that way and that was the big difference. I said that’s how all the people got there. One of the things that people don’t realize about the march in many ways, it was really a working-class march. People don’t remember that or don’t even think about that. Working class, not only in terms of the labor unions involved, but the majority of Black folks there, whether they were in unions or not, were domestic workers, were farmers, and were laborers. People coming out of churches. Churches helped organize this thing across America. Remember, there were buses that came in from Texas. There were buses that came in from all over the country, and a lot of those buses were done with churches inside the Black community.
So, it was very different – It wasn’t as some people portrayed as some upper middle class, middle-class march; These were working people who came to DC saying enough is enough. That was something that did not get enough attention from people like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and even King had said what were socialists and were not afraid to say they were. So there was a huge undercurrent there that history’s forgotten because what we remember is I Have a Dream, which is a great speech, an incredible, powerful thing that sent people off the roof. People loved it but people forget what was inside that march and what it really meant in total.
Larry Gibson: Your question to Marc reminds me that Marc is white. We never regarded –
[Marc and Max laugh]
– Marc, and I’ve known him for 60 years, I have to be reminded. That’s right. Supposedly, this has been our brother forever. So, let me begin with that. That’s right. I did forget that.
Maximillian Alvarez: This was back when you had a ponytail?
Marc Steiner: No, this was way before the pony-
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, this was before the ponytail, okay.
Larry Gibson: No.
Marc Steiner: It was pre-ponytail [laughs].
Larry Gibson: No. Marc was one of us, but anyway.
Maximillian Alvarez: I cherish getting to hear about these things. Because Marc and I, when we talk about these stories all the time, I joke with Marc that he’s like the Forrest Gump of the left because in every significant event for the past 50 years, somehow he was there. So, let’s build on that. Let’s go to that day because again, for 60 years we’ve been hearing stories about mainly the civil rights, the state of the civil rights movement, the fight against racial segregation, against Jim Crow, the fight for full citizenship for Black people in this country. That is the dominant overarching frame for which we understand the significance of the March on Washington.
As you both have already laid out, there was a massive component to that of working-class struggle, the struggle for economic justice as well as racial justice. So that already gives us a really helpful way to rethink that moment in history. Now I want to talk about the scene itself, right?
Marc Steiner: Mm-hmm.
Maximillian Alvarez: Talk to us about that day. What it was like going on the bus from Baltimore to DC? Did you guys think it was going to be as big as it was? And what was it like on the day itself in DC?
Larry Gibson: I was living in Washington at that time. I was a student at Howard University and I was the incoming student body president. So what I remember about that day is that in the beginning, it was close to 14th Street on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Then, we went up the mall of Constitution Avenue all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. The entire route for me was surrounded mostly by people from labor unions. I remember that and I remember that the group that I was with was maybe 50% Black and white. That was a surprise to me. I hadn’t fully understood the coalition involving labor unions. I didn’t fully understand the name March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I’ve been involved in the freedom part of it, so that was a learning experience. We get to the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where the stage was set up and all the speeches were given.
I remember the early phases of the speeches but there’s a funny part of how this all ended for me. I was at the March on Washington but I did not hear the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King. I heard the early speeches and frankly one of the earliest speeches was the main speech I wanted to hear, which was John Lewis.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Larry Gibson: I knew John. There had been during the early stages, some controversy, some uncertainty as to whether they were going to allow John to speak at all. So I heard him and then a few others, and then I left. [All laugh] I went back up to Howard University and I heard the famous speech on a little small television set in the offices of the ROTC offices. No one told me it was going to be, the man was going to give maybe the most famous civil rights speech that ever delivered. I’d heard Martin Luther King speak before. He’d spoken at Howard University. So I was at the March on Washington but I missed the main event.
Maximillian Alvarez: He peaced out before MLK got there [laughs].
Larry Gibson: Peaced out before we got to that.
Marc Steiner: That’s right, funny.
Larry Gibson: I saw this great big crowd. I knew transportation was going to be rough. So, I went back up to Howard University.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s exceedingly relatable to me [all laugh] because I’m the guy who’s like, all right. Let’s leave in the fourth quarter of the game so we don’t get stuck in traffic. To then say 60 years later, it’s like, actually I missed Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech.
Larry Gibson: So my big civil rights experiences are the sit-in in the restaurant where they let us eat and I don’t have the fucking money for the food, and the March on Washington and I leave before the big speech [all laugh]. I’m not very good at this civil rights demonstration stuff [laughs]. I needed more practice in doing this.
Maximillian Alvarez: Can’t blame you. We can’t blame you. Marc, what about you, man? What do you remember from the day itself?
Marc Steiner: Well, we took the bus down. There was a lot of singing, we were having fun on the bus. We had sandwiches on the bus and people packed chicken and we were on the bus going down. People did a lot of singing on the bus, a lot of freedom songs. We were there at the mall. One of the things that – Earlier when you talked about the jobs and freedom in the name of the march. It is not quite what you asked but it was in my head as soon as you thought about it, which is the women were not in the forefront. It was very male-dominated, but the women did a lot of stuff. There was one woman who was the reason why the unions and the civil rights movements came together. Anna Hedgeman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman.
She was a Black woman. She had been active in lots of different union organizations and other organizations as she ran. She actually brought together King and the unions and helped formulate the entire change of what was going to be presented. So, it became this powerful message of jobs and freedom. That’s something people forget because when you hear John Lewis’ speech, one of the things he talked about, and also when you heard A. Philip Randolph’s speech, it was talking about how people were suffering living low wages, not making any money, and discrimination against Black folks inside unions and also inside of the workplace. That was a huge theme of this march.
One of the things we cannot forget or leave out, this was a real working-class march. It was that that’s something we don’t think about it. So yeah, we were there to the bitter end. Then, we took a long time to find the bus. I remember some of us couldn’t figure out where the bus was. A lot of buses here, so which is the bus? What bus are we supposed to be on?
One thing I do remember about that date was when we got back to Baltimore, and I took the city bus back to my neighborhood, I got off from the corner of Liberty Heights and Garrison, which is the corner where I hung out. The brothers in the corner, one of them said, where have you been, man? Where have you been? I said I was at the March on Washington. I talked to them. They said, oh, that’s where you tried to get me going. I’m not going.
They didn’t want to go because they said, their line was, you go out there and picket and sit in. As Meathead would say and little Billy would say, if some cracker hits me in the head, I’m going to kill him.
I said we’ll let you do that. We’re not doing that.
Larry Gibson: Not everybody subscribed to the nonviolence.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right.
Larry Gibson: Part of preparing for a demonstration is that we would go and everybody would be schooled.
Marc Steiner: That’s right.
Larry Gibson: This is what we’re going to do. That was a very important part of it. Marc mentioned freedom songs. I wonder if all your listeners understand what they were. There was a whole genre of music. People know “We Shall Overcome” [singing].
Marc Steiner: [Singing]
Larry Gibson: There was a whole genre of music there and there were famous musicians. Joan Baez was one of them, and –
Marc Steiner: Harry Belafonte.
Larry Gibson: – Harry Belafonte. And people and singers who did freedom songs. So yes, we had a whole bunch of freedom songs and most of them, a lot of them were sung at the marches and in demonstrations. Music has been very important.
Marc Steiner: It was huge.
Larry Gibson: Very, very important part of it. I remember that day very much and learned. I’d learned the expansive reach of the movement. I hadn’t fully understood the important role that unions and organized labor. I saw a higher percentage of non-African Americans in a civil rights demonstration than I’d ever seen. I was at Howard University, so understandably, most of the activities that I’d seen have been almost all Black but not always, not fully. So, that was educational. So it was a learning experience and one that I remembered and I also learned to stay until the end.
Maximillian Alvarez: Stay until the end. You learned many valuable lessons that day. I want to talk about those lessons when we round out in a second but I wanted to ask about one historical detail that y’all have both touched on. We’ve talked about how the composition of the march, and the different organizations from churches to unions, to student groups all contributed to making this event happen. I know that there’s also a lot of drama behind the scenes that almost meant that the march itself didn’t happen and that has largely been forgotten. There was a lot of internal politics from what the name of it was going to be, to what the message was going to be, to how radical that message was going to be. I know that the White House didn’t want it to happen initially.
Was there a fear that it wouldn’t happen or that it would be shut down at any point? Or anything about the politics behind the scenes that you want to put on the record?
Larry Gibson: We had multiple competing groups.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Larry Gibson: Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NACCP, labor movements.
Maximillian Alvarez: CORE.
Larry Gibson: Congress of [inaudible], Congress of Racial Equality. Who would be the leaders that would go and meet with the president? This is the genius of Bayard Rustin. He was the principal organizer. He was the one who could talk to every group and it kept it moving forward and getting it done. He did it with the presence of A. Philip Randolph, because this was A. Philip Randolph’s idea back in the ’40s, early to ’41.
Yes. There was a lot of attention and a lot of uncertainty. The person that I attribute to getting this done was Bayard Rustin.
Marc Steiner: I agree. See, one of the things that… there was a lot of tension. We weren’t in the middle of the tension but we heard about the tension all the time because we knew people who were in the middle of those negotiations. People like Courtland Cox and others who were in SNCC, and were in the middle of it. The folks who were around the civic interest group in Baltimore were always in constant touch with those guys from SNCC and so we were aware of that.
We were aware that for a while, people like Gloria Richardson didn’t want to attend. Even when she did attend, she said one word and that was it. Women didn’t speak at that thing. That’s a whole different conversation to have about why that happened. Also, it was because it was a very male-dominated time period, no matter where you were in America.
Inside the groups themselves, you had a lot of union leaders, especially white union leaders who did not want to see disruptions in the street and didn’t want to see sit-ins. They wanted to keep it very civil and it ended up being civil but some people really wanted to take it to the streets. That’s what the folks in SNCC wanted to see. They wanted to see people sitting down and blocking traffic. That’s what we all talked about but we didn’t do that because we had the discipline of this larger goal in mind.
It could have not come off – And you’re right, it was Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. See, these two men were real radicals and they came out of the movement of the ’30s and ’40s. They came out of the unions and Bayard Rustin came out of the nonviolent movement. People forget about the 1949, I think it was the ’49 Freedom Rides, the first attempted Freedom Rides.
So, these were guys who were steeped in the movement and the struggle. They knew how to pull people together and bridge these gaps. So I agree, I give it to men like Randolph and Rustin for doing that, pulling it off, making it happen.
Maximillian Alvarez: Because I could talk to you guys about this for days but I know we got to hit the final turn here. I got two more questions I wanted to ask you, while I have the opportunity to ask you both sitting here on this couch. How closely would you say your personal memory of that day, 60 years ago, resembles the popular memory of that day that we have in our national mythology? At this point, is it difficult to differentiate between the two: your personal memory and then the History Channel version of that day? Did those ever mix?
Larry Gibson: The photographers and historians have done a pretty good job of presenting what that day was like. I don’t see a major divergence from reality. We’re not talking about the background. That’s a different question. That day there were a few more people, the official record is 250,000. I suspect it was a larger group than that. Other than that, it was so recorded, so many cameras that people have been able to preserve and to get a pretty good feel for what happened on that day.
Now what follows is, that we have different things happening. To me, the most dramatic was the bombing of the church that killed four young girls in Birmingham. This is actually maybe four months later but for some reason in my head, it’s almost like it’s the immediate reaction response. I put the two together. We have this march and then we have that horrific bombing.
I was the student body president at Howard University. We organized, as I’m sure people did in other places, what we thought was going to be a student protest march when that occurred. Then the university administration and faculty joined in and we at that time were a little upset about that because they seemed to have taken over the march. Now in later years, we understood that they found this as horrific as we did. Being youngsters at that time, we thought they were intruding on our demonstration. No, it wasn’t our demonstration. This was something which the whole world felt revulsion to. Being young, we didn’t fully understand that.
One of my prized possessions is a photograph of that and I’m walking beside James Madison Nabrit, the president of Howard University at that time. That’s the event that after that, that then propelled me to get involved beyond Howard University. I became the chairman of something called the DC Students for Civil Rights. The legislative action that followed became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Public Accommodations, and FEPC. There were the demands of the march but then it had to be put into legislation.
The group that I headed were students from eight colleges and universities around Washington, DC where we figured that this was going to be a legislative activity. We were from all over the country. So for me, it was the recollection of that bombing. Then the next thing is the next spring is the beginning of the effort to pass what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
So it was now, we’ve had this march. What are we really going to do? A lot of other things happened in the interim but that’s the big next-year consequence from it from this march and the legislation is passed.
Maximillian Alvarez: Marc, what about you? Is it hard to parse your personal memories from the national mythology? Like Larry, where did you go from there in the immediate aftermath of the march?
Marc Steiner: Well, one of the things that did, it’s really hard. I was going to say a disservice but that’s not right. What people remember about the march is King’s speech. That’s what rings in most Americans’ heads.
Maximillian Alvarez: What do you say? It’s an objectively phenomenal speech.
Marc Steiner: No, I love that speech. It was amazing. He was one of the most amazing orators in my lifetime in America. And his commitment. He was an amazing human being. The reason that bothered me some is only because there was so much more to it than that. He was the pinnacle of it at the end. Imagining hundreds of thousands of people in Washington DC, no violence took place at all that day. That’s something people need to think about.
Also, it was a seminal moment that shifted America. People were watching this from all over the country on their television sets. It led to this, as Larry was saying, it led to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and things began to change. We also have to remember leading up to that march and after that march, the violence against civil rights workers was intense.
In the summer of ’64, 26 people were killed in Mississippi alone. One of them was, as I said earlier, Mickey Schwerner who was in Baltimore for the Gwynn Oak demonstrations and was on our bus, was killed in the mud of Mississippi. So this was a seminal moment that was in the middle of the struggle that would not come to fruition totally until maybe ’68 with the Voting Rights Act and more that took place.
To be part of that moment, I still remember it vividly. All of it. It stays in my head and my heart. And all the people that sacrificed so much to fight segregation, to change America, and that also, look, we’re fighting it again.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, that’s what I want to ask about. So the final question here is, what’s the state of that struggle that brought you guys to DC 60 years ago? How do you feel about the legacy of the fight for civil rights? Looking back on it now, where do you think we are? And what do you think that moment 60 years ago means for the fight we have today?
Larry Gibson: Oh, there’s been a lot of progress in my view.
Marc Steiner: Yes, there has been. There’ll be no Larry Gibson, the longstanding professor at the University of Law School if it wasn’t for the civil rights movement and the struggles that we fought.
Larry Gibson: No. There’s been a tremendous progress. Imagine, let’s take the military. As we speak, the Secretary of Defense is a Black man. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an African American. There are lots of things that are different. In ’64, the Public Accommodations Act was very important. There’s been progress made in employment but that doesn’t in many other areas.
I write a lot about Thurgood Marshall. Probably the greatest disappointment that he would have with the current status of things, of all the battles he thought that was over was the voting rights thing. In 1944 he won what he considered his most important case, Smith v. Allwright, challenging the white primary. He regarded that as his most important case, not Brown v. Board of Education.
He delighted in the fact that a couple of years after the March on Washington, he was then the Solicitor General. He was able to argue the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and the damage that the Supreme Court had done, eviscerating much of the Voting Rights Act and many of the current measures to interfere with people’s right to vote. Of all of our incomplete tasks, my personal hero Thurgood Marshall, would regard the continued fight for the Americans to be able to vote and their votes to be counted. That’s a current battle right now that would be most disappointing to him.
So I said at the beginning, there’s been a lot of progress and some of the battles are pretty much over. This current effort, which is an attack on democracy, is something that is a little surprising. I would’ve thought that that was one battle that we’d won and was over and I know that would be the view of my personal hero, Thurgood Marshall.
Marc Steiner: Again, it’s a very difficult question. The changes that were made in the civil rights struggle fundamentally changed this country on some very positive levels. There are fewer folks who are not Black that are ardent racists than there were before but they’re still here. Voting rights, public accommodations, and the growth of the Black middle class and Black upper middle class in America, all those things have changed this country fundamentally.
We also have to realize that because of the civil rights movement, the right-wing conservative movement in this country began organizing effectively in the early ’70s, and began changing to build where they are today. Now, we’re up against a situation where we are fighting to retain the rights that we fought for then, and not let them push it back and push it forward. So, we’re in the midst of a different struggle at the moment in America.
Then, it’s also what was built in that period when the government began programs in the late ’60s and early ’70s that fundamentally changed the lives of many Black people in America. They’ve taken many of those away and they pushed them back. What has happened in our cities like here, we end up with dystopian neighborhoods where nothing is left.
Let me paint as a short picture. I won’t belabor it but let me paint it. So when both of us were young in the ’50s in this country and the early ’60s, we still had segregation. Then the Black world was alive and bustling with businesses and people living, stuck, not allowed to leave out of the ghetto, but they were in their city neighborhoods in Black communities, but they were thriving on some levels.
What we’ve done now is create a world of dystopian inner-city neighborhoods where there’s no hope. The difference was in the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, and ’30s, there was hope because people were struggling to say, we’re going to not let you do this to us. We’re going to end it. We’re going to end segregation and end your oppression of our people.
What’s happened now is there’s no hope left in these dystopian neighborhoods. There are no grocery stores. There are no amenities, houses falling apart, and schools are not funded right. So that part of the struggle still has to be fought, for especially young African American kids that live in poverty, and their families, and Mexican Americans as well, and many other communities in this country. So, that struggle continues.
Now, we’re also faced with this right-wing surge in America, which really wants to push back everything that we fought for. They want to take it all back. They’re very clear about it. Glenn Beck. This dawned on me this morning, as I was thinking about our conversation today. He actually had the nerve for the 50th anniversary to stage their own demonstration in DC trying to claim the March on Washington as theirs. I want to go smack him but I didn’t do that.
Maximillian Alvarez: I would pay to watch Marc Steiner slap Glenn Beck, frankly.
Marc Steiner: That moment moved us forward. It changed the heart of this country and we have to continue fighting to maintain what we won and to push it forward. That’s where we are now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well that’s as beautiful and of a spot to end on as any. Larry and Marc, I can’t thank you guys enough for indulging me once again. And giving myself and our incredible Real News audience access to these amazing memories and these stories that we don’t ever really get to hear. So I wanted to say, on behalf of myself and my generation, thank you for sharing this with us.
Marc, it is still your show, man. So, I don’t feel comfortable signing off for you. [Marc laughs] For The Real News Network on my part on this special commemorative episode of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s been a real honor. Marc, take us away.
Marc Steiner: Well, let me conclude this way. There was one civil rights song that we had that was opportune for this moment. It is, are you ready?
Larry Gibson: Affirmative.
Marc Steiner: [Sings “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”]
Larry Gibson: [Sings “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”]
Marc Steiner: That’s the end. We ain’t done yet and then not turn this around.
Larry Gibson: Oh yeah, I remember that one.
Marc Steiner: I want to thank my good friend, Larry Gibson. I’m so glad that you can do this today, man. It was really good.
Larry Gibson: Thank you, Marc. I did enjoy it.
Marc Steiner: This is really good. Max, thanks for taking over and doing this. This is Marc Steiner thanking Cameron Granadino and Adam Coley behind the scenes for making this show work today. Without them, this stuff wouldn’t happen. I thank you all for joining us and keep tuning in right to me at email@example.com. Excuse me, had the wrong email address. Write to me and let me know what you think and I’ll write right back to you. And tell me what you’d like us to cover. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us and take care.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work. So please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to The Real News Network. Solidarity forever.