There are certain moments — the beginning or end of a major war, the death of a public figure, an historic earthquake or storm — that millions of people can remember with clarity, and in great detail, many years afterward. The Aug. 28, 1963 civil-rights March on Washington and "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr. is one of those.
It will be commemorated next week in Washington, D.C. with the official dedication of a Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial at the tidal basin on the Mall, between the Jefferson and Washington Memorials. It seems particularly appropriate that President Barack Obama, our first African-American president, who was not yet 2 years old at the time of the speech, will keynote the occasion.
August 28, 1963 was a warm day. Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, had spent many months making preparations, which included transportation to the capital for black and other civil-rights supporters, negotiations with police, recruitment of speakers, and raising of funds. The AFL-CIO was a bulwark of support in all of those undertakings. Rustin's role has been dimmed in history, in part because of the smears he endured, even from the civil-rights movement, because he had a radical past and was gay. More on this below.
I was working at the time for the European Communities (now the European Union), which had no formal diplomatic representation in the United States at the time and depended on American staff in the capital. In my off-hours, I had done volunteer work to prepare for the March. I had in my care on that day Karl-Heinz Narjes, later to become a German cabinet minister, who was visiting the capital. I walked with him to the line of march as it approached the Lincoln Memorial. I told him I intended to join it. He said he would like to march as well. Narjes likely was the only 6-foot-4-inch blonde German national in the crowd that day.
The atmosphere near the Lincoln Memorial was memorable — a wholly orderly crowd in the hundreds of thousands, united by common purpose, some singing as they arrived in the line of march. I felt tears coming down my cheeks. When King took the podium, the throng was expectant. He was known as an orator and the marchers were ready for him.
His "I Have a Dream" speech still runs through my brain. It summed up the deepest-felt feelings of civil-rights supporters and was very much within the American tradition. Who could argue with the premise that all children should be judged on "the content of their character" rather than on the basis of race, ethnicity, or other factors?
When the day ended, those in attendance left the Mall reluctantly. The crowd's exit was as peaceful and orderly as its entrance had been. We all felt we had been part of a significant occasion. Neither Narjes nor I spoke a word in the 15 minutes it took to walk from the Mall to his downtown hotel.
A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ultimate, practical objective of the March, gained passage after heroic efforts by the same coalition that had organized the March and by the legislation's chief sponsor, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, whose staff I had by then joined, and President Lyndon Johnson. (The street address of the new King Memorial is "1964," commemorating the passage of the bill and its signing by LBJ).
Great progress had been made. But the aftermath of the March and MLK speech had its sadnesses.
Rustin had been a controversial and polarizing figure. He had been a 1930s member of a Communist youth group and a World War II conscientious objector. But his least forgiveable attribute, it turned out, was that he was gay. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, the New York preacher/politician, resented Rustin's influence in New York City. Powell threatened to spread false reports that Rustin and King were gay lovers unless the Southern Christian Leadership Conference expelled Rustin from a leadership position. The SCLC folded and did so.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with Rustin and King, convinced that both were Communists. He compiled dossiers on both and circulated excerpts to Hoover-friendly media. Jack Valenti, an assistant to President Johnson, recounted to me how Hoover had brought recordings of King's extramarital sexual encounters to the Oval Office and played them aloud for Johnson. Johnson, of course, could not have cared less about MLK's private life; he valued his civil-rights leadership.
The unveiling next week of the King Memorial may help give Rustin the credit he has never fully received. King, of course, would be murdered at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968. I accompanied Humphrey to Memphis, shortly after King's murder, and met privately with Jesse Epps and other leaders of a garbage workers' strike, which King had come to Memphis to support. They told me that Memphis police had been part of the plot that culminated in James Earl Ray's shooting of King and offered backup information. But the Justice Department could never nail down a case against anyone but Ray.
Nearly 30 years later I would speak to a group of black southern state legislators in Memphis. I mentioned Epps. No one present remembered the name. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta has struggled to raise funds since its founding.
Recent polling data reflect public attitudes that post-1963/1964 racial progress has been disappointing. It is quite true that overall economic and social progress, in black communities in particular, has been less than we thought it would be back then and after accompanying Great Society legislation was passed in 1965.
Yet black leaders today lead major corporations, financial institutions, universities, and unions. The military, public sector, and judicial system are heavily populated by African American leaders, up to and incuding our president. I always thought we would have an African American president, just as I believe that we also will in time have a woman, Latino, Asian-American, and gay president. But I would not have imagined it would have happened by 2008. History can bend slowly, but I would like to think, as King put it, that it ultimately "bends in the direction of justice."
By any measure the United States is a freer, more just, and better country today than it was in 1963. We do not feel the burning missionary spirit toward economic and social justice today that we felt in 1963 but that, in part, is because of the progress already made. That spirit will in time return. And, around the globe, King's message has taken hold just as strongly as Gandhi's earlier non-violent message moved millions toward peaceful change.
August 28, 1963, is part of us and will remain part of us. The memorial will serve as an eternal reminder of its importance.