The Aug. 28 march was the largest ever in Washington to that point — with as many as 300,000 participants — and the first to be nationally televised. If something went wrong, there would have been no way the presidential spinmeisters or civil rights organizers could gloss over it.
The Kennedy White House feared violence or mayhem or something else bad. But to the Kennedys’ surprise the march was peaceful and orderly, drawing a happy crowd. And the success of that march was an important step in putting the civil rights movement in the mainstream of American politics.
That day’s high point, of course, was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which entered the canon of American ideals as a ringing statement of where we hope to be someday as a nation.
Less noticed that August Saturday 50 years ago were the seeds of two movements that would steadily transform modern America: feminism and gay rights.
The march was sponsored by the “Big Six” civil rights groups, but the man who made it happen was an activist and labor organizer named Bayard Rustin. However, Rustin’s resume required that he stay in the background: He was gay, a former Communist and a pacifist who served time in prison during World War II rather than fight to defend his country. The political wisdom of the day dictated that he stay out of sight — a decision that was undoubtedly correct.
And the civil rights leaders who gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were all male. Even civil rights icon Rosa Parks, instigator of the 1955 Birmingham bus boycott, a major turning point in the civil-rights movement, was introduced but not invited to speak.
The oversight did not pass unnoticed by the black women who did so much of the movement’s heavy lifting, backstage and out of sight.
Now, here we are 50 years, several wars, urban riots and recessions later. One hopes we’re a wiser, more tolerant and more forward-looking people, as King would have wanted it.
Although a degree of personal racism will likely always continue, and there will probably always be those who exploit race for political purposes, institutional racism is a thing of the past in this country, even here in the Deep South. We are unquestionably a better region and a better country as a result. And there’s no question that a key step in the march toward that welcome goal took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago this week.