Wednesday August 28, 1963, was a rare day weather-wise in Washington D.C. Instead of the usual seasonal swelter, it was mild for a late summer day. Still, after a long bus ride from Allentown, the 40 riders from the Lehigh Valley who planned to take part in the civil rights March for Freedom and Jobs there that day were glad when their bus pulled in at the city’s New York Avenue. From there they were to walk to the Washington Monument and down to the Lincoln Memorial where the day’s events would take place.
One, Richard “Dick” Cowen, was a newspaper reporter. Most of the others were members of the region’s African American community. Among them were ministers, local civil rights activists and ordinary folks, white and Black who came to witness and take part. In their ranks was Clyde Bosket, then Allentown’s only African American barber. What they, like the between 200,000 and 300,000 other participants were to live through and share a part in, was an historic event both In Black and American history. Out of it was to come, eventually, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The “I Have a Dream” speech given that day by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement’s inspirational and organizational leader, still resonates almost 60 years later.
No one can say exactly when the idea for the March for Freedom and Jobs was first conceived. There had been some events planned as far back as the 1940s by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro Labor Council and vice president of the AFL-CIO. But for a variety of reasons, they never came off. But by 1963, ever since the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, a movement for Black civil rights against the segregated South, under the direction of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, had been growing. Discussions about a march of some sort were taking place.
As the 1950s became the 1960s, it had reached a point where Randolph and his aide Bayard Rustin decided a dramatic march on Washington that would shake the Kennedy administration and the country up was needed. At roughly the same time, May 24, 1963, at the behest of U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Black civil rights leaders and intellectuals had gathered at the request of James Baldwin, internationally recognized as one of America’s leading authors and Black rights activist (his book The Fire Next Time that urged the end of racism was the talk of the country), at an apartment owned by the Kennedy family at 24 Central Park South in New York.
Kennedy, who had met Baldwin at the 1962 Nobel Prize dinner, had recently had the author at his Washington area home, Hickory Hill, where the meeting was arranged. Among those present at the New York meeting along with civil rights organization leaders were singer and activist Harry Belafonte, singer and activist Lena Horne, and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry, best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun. Edwin C. Berry, director of the Chicago Urban League, had invited as his guest Jerome Smith, a young man who had recently returned from Mississippi where he had been beaten and jailed for attempting to register Black people to vote. Smith was also a Freedom Rider whose harrowing bus ride through the segregated south in 1961 had brought down on them the full wrath of the Ku Klux Klan and other white southerners when they tried to desegregate lunch counters.
Kennedy began the meeting by pointing out that the Justice Department had been working to aid and protect civil rights activists and wanted to know what more it could do. The attorney general was not without motives of his own. Historians have noted since his brother would be running for the White House again in 1964, he wanted to keep southern Democratic support and get Black votes as well. Suddenly Smith began to weep and cry as if having a flashback. He began to argue with Kennedy, telling him his FBI had done nothing to help Blacks. He said the government was full of hypocrites. He would rather die than join the army to fight in Cuba or Vietnam for this racist country. Kennedy began to argue back. He had always been a staunch anti-Communist. So what Smith was saying in his mind bordered on treason.
One of Kennedy’s first jobs in Washington was working for Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, a polarizing figure in the early 1950s for his accusations that Communists had infiltrated the government. A hero to some and a demagogue to others, in 1954 McCarthy was censured by the Senate. On hearing of his death in 1957, Kennedy had wept and attended the funeral. Soon others in the meeting came to Smith’s defense, saying he spoke the truth. “The only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” said Hansberry before she walked out. Others claiming Kennedy had no real understanding of the racism of the South followed her. An infuriated Kennedy had the FBI tap Baldwin’s phone only to “discover” that he was a homosexual, something that Baldwin had never denied. But when Martin Luther King talked the next day to Harry Belafonte about the meeting, he sounded pleased. “Maybe it’s just what Bobby (Kennedy) needed to hear,” he said. Later, talking to Smith, King said, “Looks like the Attorney General of the United States regards you as an uppity Negro. But that’s all right. We still love you. You’re our uppity Negro.”
Some sources contend that the confrontation between Kennedy and Smith caused him to begin to change his mind about the civil rights campaign. Whatever the reason and despite reports from an outraged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Bayard Rustin was a homosexual and therefore the March for Freedom and Jobs was “Communist inspired,” the Justice Department under Kennedy did not attempt to stop it. In fact, the Kennedy administration cooperated with the march’s planners. There was much tension that summer before the event. Its leaders received bomb threats. King and fellow organizers were threatened with assassination. To prevent this the Washington police force was mobilized to capacity, and 5,000 members of the National Guard were mobilized.
According to one source it was originally planned to hold the march outside the Capitol building. But some of its leaders decided it would be less threating to Congress and more appropriate to hold at the Lincoln Memorial under the eyes as it were of Abraham Lincoln. A special sound system costing $19,000 was installed. When there were problems with it the night before, march leaders sent word to Bobby Kennedy. “We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we have done?” That night it was re-built by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
That morning buses converged on the capital. There were Black and white celebrities including Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Pointer, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll. Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was also present that day, as was Judy Garland, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan played folk and protest songs.
There were all kinds of newspaper headlines about what might happen when “100,000 militant Negros” would descend on the nation’s capital that day. Despite that more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airplanes and a huge number of cars converged on Washington, none of that happened. The leadership of the march did everything possible to keep the peace. For example, Baldwin, because it was afraid he would be too “militant,” was not allowed to speak. Malcolm X, considered at the time the most militant Black person in America, found the whole thing futile and hardly a protest demonstration worthy of the name. He called it a “circus” and a “clown show.” But for many others it was an ideal and successful event. King’s appeal to an American Dream which has made his words immortal has placed it among the great orations of all time. Although he was later to be denounced as a Communist and radical for his opposition to the Vietnam War, it was the 1963 march that remains what he is best remembered for.
After the march was over President John F. Kennedy met with its leaders at the White House and expressed his support for the cause while congratulating King for his eloquent speech that he had watched on television. Kennedy had no way of knowing that several months later he would be dead from an assassin’s bullets and his Civil Rights bill that had been stalled in the Senate would finally pass in part in reaction to his own tragic death.
On his way back to Allentown that evening, Cowen took notes on the reaction of local participants to the events that appeared in a story he wrote in the next day’s Morning Call. In it he quoted their reactions:
“In this kind of protest, I think the members of a minority group should not stand alone,” said the Rev. Jack M. Bowers, minister of education at Bethlehem’s First Presbyterian Church who helped coordinate the trip. “With the number of whites who turned out this event today was evidence that they (the Negroes) will not be standing alone.”
Alvin Howard, president of the Allentown NAACP noted how well organized it was and what a magnificent speaker King was. “I truly believe that one day we will overcome.”
Muhlenberg College chaplain David Bremer, who carried a placard in the march, said “This demonstration reflects a growing national feeling that we’ve had a great deal of talk, but that now it’s time to be replaced with positive action.”
Perhaps an unnamed young girl in the back of the bus summed it up best: “It makes you feel good inside, I feel like I am going to cry.”
Almost 60 years has passed since the March for Freedom and Jobs was held. Recent events suggest that the country is still far from full racial equality.
Before his death Dick Cowen donated his program from that day to the Smithsonian Institution. He and Bosket later recalled that August. In 2013 on the march’s 50th anniversary, Bosket told Morning Call reporter Dan Sheehan that many young people today really do not appreciate what King and the event itself was all about. “Dr. King was the foundation of everything that is good today among minority groups,” he said. “I’m still following the dream.”