Whites feared massive violence. The government had mobilized 6,000 police officers, 2,000 National Guardsmen and 4,000 soldiers to await the marchers.
But the fear went deeper than of mere broken windows and broken heads. The fear was that black people, by gathering in huge numbers and attracting huge attention, would become visible.
Much of white America failed to see black people at all. Black people, for the most part, were, as Ralph Ellison had termed them, “invisible.” They were servants and laborers. They did not sit at the desk next to white people at work or live on the same block. Most black children did not go to school with white children. White people knew that black people existed, but they did not really see them.
It was against this backdrop that the March on Washington took place. President John F. Kennedy did not want the march, but black leaders insisted. They decided against massive sit-ins in the streets of Washington and opted for a march, speeches and songs.
White America was afraid, confused, even baffled. Who were these people? And what did they want? Last Sunday, NBC re-aired its “Meet the Press” show of Aug. 25, 1963, three days before the march. The panelists, all white, asked questions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP.
The tone was set by Lawrence Spivak, a co-creator of “Meet the Press,” who began by saying to Wilkins, “There are a great many people ... who believe that it’d be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly riot.”
Wilkins calmly replied he did not think there would be any rioting.
Another panelist said many Americans were “afraid of the motives” of the march’s organizers and feared that communists had infiltrated the movement. (After the march, an FBI memo to J. Edgar Hoover said King was now “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”)
Richard Wilson of Cowles Newspaper Publications said to King that some felt he was “pushing too far too fast.”
“I don’t agree,” King said calmly. “The Negro has been extremely patient for our God-given rights. We are at the bottom of the economic ladder. We are the victims of segregation.” The march, King said, would “help not only the Negro cause but the rest of the nation.”
Spivak asked whether it would not be better for Negroes to be given “time to digest” what they already had achieved rather than push for new laws now.
Wilkins replied: “It is incumbent on the Negro population to keep asking for more. They have been deprived so long. We cannot (reduce) the pressure for the end of evil.”
Many white people, even well-meaning ones, were not used to hearing such terms. They thought the civil rights movement was a fight to sit at the same soda fountains as whites. Now they were being told it was a struggle against evil. And they might be the evil ones.
The great march would take place. It would be peaceful. King would be named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1963. In 1964, he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1968, he would be assassinated.
America would descend into paroxysms of rage over race and the war in Vietnam, a war King had publicly opposed in 1967. King’s message of nonviolence was challenged — called inadequate and a capitulation. But in the end, King was right, both morally and tactically.
On Sunday on ABC, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the last surviving speaker from the 1963 march, said of that day and of King: “The future of America as one nation, as one people, was at stake. We could’ve gone in a different direction. He helped hold us together.”
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist.