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To Dream Once More

To commemorate its role in the planning and execution of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has published a book that goes behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement to capture the drama of that great day.

The organization, then headed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was prominent among the groups who united to plan what became one of the largest, peaceful, mass demonstrations for civil rights and economic justice ever. The fact that an estimated quarter of a million or more people, blacks, whites, and others, came together on Aug. 28, 1963, to stand for freedom and progress was no small undertaking.

This book, “I Have a Dream: A 50th Year Testament to the March That Changed America,” (by SCLC, Pearson, $49.99), not only documents that day but also gives a succinct history of the long struggle before and after that day to make America deliver on the promise of freedom.

“The road to a cause or purpose begins with a need to fix an injustice,” the book says. “For African Americans, it was a journey that had to be made – one that no one could make for them, and one that would be made against opposition, and because of opposition.”

With informative text and evocative photographs, the book outlines the history of oppression that produced the determination and frustration that brought African Americans, along with a throng of allies, to the capital to stand witness to the need for change. The book includes essays and a timeline that trace the history of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and the march.

Part of that timeline that is not commonly known or discussed but cited here is how A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader, and Bayard Rustin, the pacifist agitator for civil rights, had planned to convene such a march 12 years earlier. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, alarmed that an attendance of 100,000 was predicted, asked them to call it off, but they declined, according to the book. Roosevelt responded by issuing an executive order banning discrimination in federal jobs and the defense industries.  The organizers called off the1941 march after the mere threat of it produced a favorable result.

The modern Civil Rights Movement did not begin in earnest until more than a dozen years later, with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954. Victory there inspired other boycotts and led to the organization in 1957 of what became the SCLC, under the leadership of King, as an umbrella group to coordinate nonviolent civil-rights efforts throughout the segregationist South.

In 1963, with much of the apparatus of American apartheid still in place despite the massive campaign of resistance that followed Montgomery, the SCLC joined other organizations to revive the idea of a march to the nation’s capital city. Randolph led the effort, and Rustin was in charge of the logistics to make it happen, publicize it and recruit the marchers. This time, President John F. Kennedy asked civil-rights leaders to call it off.

“Kennedy initially opposed the march because he was concerned that it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil-rights legislation,” the book relates. “However, the organizers were firm that the march would proceed no matter what. With the march going forward. Kennedy decided it was important to assure its success.”

To make sure the turnout would exceed the 100,000 then forecast, the president appealed to the United Auto Workers and to church leaders beyond those already involved through SCLC and other organizations, according to this account. On the appointed date, a crowd estimated to number 250,000 to 300,000 showed up for the march and mass rally, where movie stars and dignitaries stood with black maids, fieldworkers and laborers. The dignified, orderly and inspiring demonstration is widely credited with bringing about the passage of federal civil-rights legislation banning discrimination in public accommodations the next year, though Kennedy would not live to see it.

For those too young to have witnessed the 1963 march or who want to relive the moment, the book, primarily a photo journal, offers  dozens of captivating pictures that illustrate the mood and emotions of the march and demonstrations leading up to it.

The black-and-white photographs are by Bob Adelman, who volunteered as a photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality in the early 1960s, putting him on the frontlines of the civil-rights struggle and giving him access to key leaders, including King and Malcom X. His iconic shots give context to the 1963 march. They include one of children huddling to stand up to the pressure of fire hoses at a Birmingham, Ala., demonstration and a photo of a matronly black woman sitting alone in the back of a police wagon after a protest over segregation and hiring practices at a department store.

The close ups and panoramas of the crowd at the march itself tell their own compelling stories. One of the most interesting, perhaps, is a full-length picture of the young John R.  Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, described as taken shortly after Movement leaders edited his speech to remove rhetoric that might have been inflammatory. The photograph shows him, seated, holding papers and wearing his characteristic scowl.

It is the same expression he wore Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, for the re-enactment of the march, when he told the crowd that as a U.S. Representative from Georgia, he would not allow the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to stand. Alluding to the fractured skull he suffered in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, when state troopers attacked marchers demonstrating for voting rights as they stopped on a bridge to pray, he vowed to fight to restore protections in the law.

“I shed a little blood on that bridge,” he told the march re-enactors on Saturday.

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