(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories in connection with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.)
During the early afternoon of Aug. 27, 1963, about 35 Chattanooga area residents climbed aboard a Trailways bus in front of the local Voters Council office on what was then East Ninth Street.
Their destination logistically was Washington, D.C., but their ultimate place of desire was the land of full opportunity and civil rights for all Americans.
They were headed for an event called the “March on Washington” to help call on President John F. Kennedy and Congress to enact full rights.
They would not be alone in Washington, either, as roughly 250,000 black and white people – a number much larger number than originally predicted – would descend on the area in front of Lincoln Memorial to hear various speeches during the rally.
Despite the struggles, including just the previous spring in Birmingham with the civil rights protests that resulted in jail bookings and the use of fire hoses, the gatherers sensed victory was at hand.
This was obvious by the smiling faces of the bus riders in George Moody’s photograph on the front page of the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Aug. 27.
The accompanying article by Irby Park Jr. said that all the Chattanooga participants were wearing “march” buttons and that a number of white people from the area were also expected to make the trip.
Three buses had initially been reserved, but the number was reduced to one after several Chattanoogans said they planned to get to Washington by automobile or other means.
All roads were leading to Washington, as numerous buses were passing through Chattanooga from Birmingham.
Among those taking part and leaving on the Chattanooga bus were the Rev. W.H. Thompson, pastor of New Emanuel Baptist Church, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, state march chairman and minister of Cosmopolitan Community Church.
The Chattanooga area chairman of the march, the Rev. Paul Jones, was at the Voters Council office to wish the participants off, but he did not go with them due to the fact that his church, St. James Baptist, was having a revival.
It was going to be a long and tiring trip for the Chattanoogans, as they were to come back home immediately after the rally ended. But they likely did not mind, as many felt they had already been on a lengthy proverbial journey to try and secure civil rights, so this was likely a refreshing trip.
On the same day as the march, school began in Chattanooga, and 10 elementary schools were now integrated in the second year of desegregation. Notre Dame High School also became the first local high school to have black students that week.
While the Washington march and gathering are remembered today for being crowning moments in the civil rights movement and a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. captured a nation’s attention as a skilled public orator, its legacy was quite unclear on Aug. 28, 1963.
Non-supporters of the event were calling the crowd a mob, and some feared violence might result. To alleviate any potential problems, Washington, D.C., officials banned the sale of alcohol during the event.
But everyone sensed it was going to be a historic day, as the three Chattanooga TV stations planned to interrupt their programming on Aug. 28 for special reports in those days before 24-hour cable news networks.
Channel 3 was to have two roughly 30-minute reports in the afternoon and a 45-minute recap after the late local news, while Channel 12 was simply going to have a special program hosted by anchor Walter Cronkite from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Channel 9, meanwhile, was going to have six broadcasts of varying lengths throughout the day. Whether it or Channel 3 captured any of Dr. King’s speech live is not known.
A march on Washington by blacks had first been planned by A. Phillip Randolph in 1941, when he wanted to bring 100,000 to Washington to protest working opportunities for blacks. President Franklin Roosevelt did not think it was a good idea, but he did sign an executive order that appeased the black community and made them decide not to march.
However, with all the events of the early 1960s, black leaders decided the time was right for a march. The chairman of the 1963 event was none other than Mr. Randolph. President John F. Kennedy had recently come out in support of civil rights, and, while not endorsing the march, he did meet with the leaders on the day of the rally and wished them well.
When the gathering was held, Marion Peck was covering the event in a special story for the Chattanooga Times. Obviously caught up in the event, the pioneering woman journalist from Chattanooga wrote, “About 200,000 Americans stepped into the street here Wednesday to reaffirm their contention that all men are equal, and the freedom and human dignity are prizes worth fighting for.
Ms. Peck, who lived in Hixson and died in 1992, continued, “In a march on Washington unprecedented in the history of the nation, the crowd, black and white, marched shoulder to shoulder from the Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial to assert ‘by our very bodies here’ the claim of the Negro for ‘freedom now.’ ”
“It was a peaceful demonstration,” she added. “For many, it moved the heart to tears.”
She went on to write that the event left many observers voicing the view that “the American Negro and the American nation will never be quite the same again.”
The event early on featured Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” followed by Odetta’s “Oh Freedom.” Then came the presentation of the first black airline stewardess, Margaret Grant, who had been hired by TVA.
After that came performances by Josh White, Lonnie Satin and Bob Dylan, followed by the presentation of Rosa Parks, who had refused to give up her seat to a white person on the Montgomery bus in 1955.
Then came Daisy Bates, who had organized the children’s demonstration in Birmingham a few months earlier, followed by the introductions of Lena Horne and Bobby Darrin.
The crowd, which Ms. Peck said was estimated at between 40-45 percent white people, also saw such Hollywood supporters as Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Josephine Baker, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, Ossie Davis, Joanne Woodward, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn, among others.
Marian Anderson, who had once performed in Chattanooga, had been scheduled to open the event with the singing of the national anthem, but she was caught in a traffic jam. As a result, Camilla Williams replaced her. However, the tearful Ms. Anderson was able to redeem herself when she later sang the black spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.”
Also giving memorable performances were Joan Baez, who led the singing of "We Shall Overcome," and Mahalia Jackson.
Among the noted civil rights leaders to speak was a young John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia and the only main speaker from 1963 still living in 2013.
Dr. King spoke last and gave a speech in which he deviated from his originally planned remarks.
He started off saying, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
He then went on to talk about the fact that black Americans have still not been given their full freedoms.
And then, with the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the background, he shouted enthusiastically, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal.’ ”
He then continued this theme, clamoring for Americans to let freedom ring, including from “Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.”
He then ended his speech with this: “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
In the 50 years since his speech and the rally, many more freedoms and rights have come for black Americans and other minorities. Over the next two years after 1963, for example, civil rights and voting rights laws were enacted.
But the country has not been made whole yet, many contend, whether within ethnic minority communities or in their relationships with the rest of the citizens of the United States.
However, on Aug. 28, 1963, with the help of Dr. King’s highly praised oratory, all Americans were reminded of the grand possibilities that did exist in this country.
(Note: As a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and because of the mention of Lookout Mountain in Dr. King’s famous speech, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is planning a special program Wednesday, Aug. 28, beginning at 2:30 p.m. at the New York Peace Monument at Point Park. Fourth graders from Orchard Knob Elementary will read portions of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, followed by a bell-ringing ceremony at 3. Admission is free).
To see the first story in the series, click here: http://www.chattanoogan.com/2013/8/24/257741/Dr.-King-s-Chattanooga-Connections.aspx