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Fifty years ago, final preparations for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were underway. While most remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, organizers recall countless other remarkable moments around that historic day. We talk with one of King’s speechwriters, Clarence B. Jones, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton about that day and the way ahead for the civil rights movement.
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-D.C.)
- Clarence B. Jones Visiting Professor, University of San Francisco; Scholar Writer in Residence, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University; co-author, "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation"
Kojo spoke with speechwriter Dr. Clarence B. Jones on Wednesday, Aug. 21, about concerns of violence leading up to the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and how those concerns ultimately influenced the location of the event.
While parts of the speech were written in advance, some of it was improvised on the spot, including the most famous passages. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson played an integral part in the inclusion of “the dream.”
Jones has said he is often asked about King and who is living today who is most like him. Kojo asked, instead, what people seldom ask, and he wishes people would realize, about the man who is so often mythologized.
Jones shared insights into how Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches were written, both generally and in the case of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Jones discussed the significance of deciding to write the “I Have a Dream” speech in the future tense.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFifty years ago today organizers were in the midst of final preparations for a March on Washington, a march the likes of which our nation's capitol had never seen, a peaceful march. A march for jobs and freedom, that drew civil rights leaders who had organized similar events but on smaller scales in the South, activists, singers and celebrities and young volunteers who worked the phones to make it happen.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmong them was a young law student named Eleanor Holmes who would later become her hometown's congresswoman. Joining us here today to share her memories of the march preparations and the day itself, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is in her 12th term as a representative for the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONOh, good to be with you Kojo.
NNAMDIYou were a law student at the time of the March on Washington in August of 1963. What caused you to get involved?
NORTONWell, I mean, I don't see how anyone could've resisted becoming a part of the civil rights movement. I was at Yale Law School but every summer I went with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to engage in civil rights work. And in 1963 I went to the Mississippi Delta at a time when there was talk of the March on Washington. Well, I said to a man I knew well because I was one of a clack of young people who hung around Bayard Rustin a rare movement intellectual at the time. I remember saying, you know, if this comes off give me a call and I will come. And of course it came.
NNAMDIIt did indeed come. By the way, if you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Were you at the March on Washington for jobs and freedom 50 years ago? You can call with your memories of that day, 800-433-8850. Congresswoman Norton, I'm so glad you mentioned Bayard Rustin so early because when I first came to Washington, many of my own mentors were people who were involved with you and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
NNAMDIAnd the term you used to describe your relationship with Bayard Rustin earlier on, those of us who hung around Bayard Rustin, really rings a bell with me because that's how they described it. Could you -- for those in our audience who are not familiar with Bayard Rustin, could you tell us who he was and what working for him was like in the lead up to the march?
NORTONWell, Bayard Rustin was really one of a kind. First of all he -- one of the reasons that we wanted to hang around, yes, Rustin is that he had engaged in civil obedience with a student of Gandhi before anyone we had heard of. I mean, this is a man who went on a version -- in fact, it was the real version, no different from the freedom rides that were to come 20 years later. He had gone to prison as a pacifist resisting the draft during World War II, served three years in Leavenworth.
NORTONAnd while there -- this shows you the kind of role model he was for us at a time when activism was just beginning -- while in Leavenworth he organized the protest against segregated seating in the dining halls at Leavenworth. So you see he was a man born to organize and to lead. And he was a major strategist. He could think through and had been an advisor of many of the civil rights organizations behind the scenes, but particularly Martin Luther King because of what was almost a unique ability to think through how to pull off a complicated operation.
NORTONAnd most of the times that would be things like how do you organize the SCLC where he was a major advisor to Martin Luther King on that organization, was a major organizer of the Congress of Racial Equality. Notice that these were both activist organizations and they needed someone with a sense for how to put that together and then make it work. He was really very rare because on the one hand he was an engineer of the movement. On the other hand, he was a major strategist and thinker of how to frame things and how to pull them off.
NORTONNow I have to tell you, Kojo, it's very hard for me to think of someone today that puts together all of the skills that Bayard brought to the table.
NNAMDIAnd that's why A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters thought that Bayard Rustin, with whom he had been affiliated for quite a while, was just the man to do this. But Bayard Rustin was also a gay man. And tell us about how -- and this was a different time we're talking about, 1963.
NORTONI think -- would they even use the word gay then?
NNAMDII don't think they were using the word gay in those days. He was a homosexual man. How did that affect how he was viewed and how he was treated in the civil rights movement?
NORTONWell, Kojo, I think it says everything about his brilliance that he was not only tolerated but sought by the movement to be sure he was not the front man. There were enough of those. They needed somebody who knew how to get things done. And he was completely out. Some of us who were his friends thought too much out, but he was out, never concealed who he was. And if you think about it, to somehow be tolerated and even sought out by conservative civil rights leaders, conservative relatives who homosexuality, says everything about his unique vision and his unique skills.
NORTONBut nobody fooled themselves about his sexual orientation. And of course they had an opportunity to show where they stood on a matter of principle. When Strom Thurman took to the Senate floor as he sought out Bayard and therefore somehow out or the movement as a communist-run floor all kinds of stuff. And to their credit the six leaders of the civil rights movement closed in around Bayard and never thought a thing about somehow succumbing to, you know, the racism of Strom Thurman.
NNAMDISo you were working for Bayard Rustin in 1963 as a volunteer at the March on Washington. What was that day like for you?
NORTONThe day of the march, first it might be interesting to note that the staff meeting the day before the march where among other things -- and believe me, although Bayard was the organizer of everything, he also made many of us a jack of all trades. And I would -- I was helping people to get buses and trains. And then I was also sent out to talk to groups, groups that could be in a huge union hall, groups that could be a small community group. But they were all in the New York area because the march was organized out of a brownstone at 130th and Lenox Avenue.
NORTONSo when we got to this final staff meeting working out the final details, leave it to Bayard to think of the ultimate detail which was that there would be some people who were calling the night before to say, I got to get to that march. How do I get myself to a bus or train? Well, native Washingtonian me raised my hand. I would stay all night. The reason was one, I knew enough about what I would see. I would come in the next morning and I could see whether or not it looked like anybody was coming to the march. And of course as a nice side issue I get to go on a plane and not a bus.
NNAMDIYeah, because for SNCC workers planes weren't even invented yet.
NORTONNot as far as we were concerned. To be sure, when I went to Mississippi there was no other recourse but we certainly were going to go the cheapest way to the march.
NNAMDIYou know, fast forwarding to the day of the march itself, and you talk about the anxiety that you all had, and going forward then to the speech that was ultimately delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., yesterday we spoke with one of King's attorneys, Dr. Clarence B. Jones who worked with him on that speech. And, you know, we were thinking about the fact that during the course of that speech, Dr. King talked a little bit about, I guess, a promissory note that -- to the citizens of color that America was defaulted on.
NNAMDIAnd we asked Clarence B. Jones, as a speechwriter, where that reference came from. He said it started when he, Clarence B. Jones, took a trip from Birmingham to New York to pick up bail money offered by Governor Nelson Rockefeller through singer and activist Henry Belafonte that could be used to get some young civil rights activists out of jail. Let's listen.
MR. CLARENCE B. JONESThe inside of a bank vault I had seen really from principally gangster movies or movies. So when I was at the Chase Manhattan Bank -- by the way, banks were not open on Saturday in April, 1963 and this vault was opened -- when that vault door swung open I saw nothing but currency from floor to ceiling. And some of it was in canvas bags but most of it I could see. And the Rockefeller fellow went over and took $100,000 in cash in cellophane wrappers, some of it and some of it just in rubber bands, and gave it to me. And I was excited because I wasn't to get back to Birmingham and take the money.
MR. CLARENCE B. JONESAnd he said, well Mr. Jones, you first have to go and see this man. So I go over and see this man and this gentleman is an executive of the bank. He's sitting behind a typewriter and he says, you know Mr. Jones, for bank regulations we have to have some evidence of where this money went. So we'd like for you to just sign a demand promissory note. Now a demand promissory note is as it says, it's payable on demand as distinguished from a note which is payable one year from date or three years from date. And so I reluctantly signed this promissory note.
NNAMDIBecause you're looking through your pockets and you don't have that kind of money.
JONESI'm looking for -- it was a demand promissory note for $100,000. So I leave the bank and I go to a pay phone and I call Harry Belafonte and I said, listen Harry, you didn't tell me that I was going to have to sign a promissory note for this money. And he says, better you than me. And I said, but you have more money than I do. That following Tuesday, there was a messenger at the reception desk in my office and I get called out. And the messenger has an envelope that he delivers to me. He says it's from the Chase Manhattan Bank. I open the envelope.
JONESInside the envelope is the demand promissory note with my signature on it. And it's been stamped on the back, paid in full. Well, I didn't pay it. Obviously somebody paid it.
NNAMDICongresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, that was how the promissory note reference got into the speech. But for those of you who were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and for those of you like you who were in law school at the time, getting activists out of jail became a rote of the civil rights movement, was it not?
NORTONOh, it absolutely was. And by the way, Kojo, when you see that promissory note you get the idea, once again, of what a master of the metaphor Martin Luther King himself was. But you're absolutely right about money to get people out of jail. For example, in Mississippi that summer -- and believe me, I had arrived only -- at the Delta only 24 hours before -- got a call that Lawrence Guyot had been put in jail when he went to get Fannie Lou Hamer out of jail.
NORTONAnd, you know, I was 24 hours in the state. I simply called the -- because I questioned the young people and they were all even younger than I was. In fact, some of them were children. Before I go over there to get arrested and to find out what the bail is, is there anybody I can talk to down here? And they said the chief of police in Greenwood, Miss. was an old friend but he didn't -- he was not -- he didn't consort with the white citizens councils that picketed or circled the SNCC office every single evening.
NORTONSo I went over to him and I told him I was going -- I had to go to find out what the bail was for Fannie Lou Hamer and others who had been held nine miles away in Winona, Miss. for using a restroom at Interstate Commerce. And that Lawrence Guyot -- who was also by the way in school -- had gone over and he had in turn been jailed. So I told him, I said, I wonder if you'd call this man and tell him I'll call everybody I know in Washington. I go to Yale Law School. I called everything at the Yale Law School. I didn't know whether this would have any effect, but at least I wanted to -- I didn't want to go over without taking whatever step I could.
NORTONI went over and I was able to find out what the bail was. I was able to see Lawrence Guyot who had been beat so badly that he had no clothes on and had to put some clothes on in order for me to see him. And I was able to meet with Fannie Lou Hamer who became a mentor of mine who had also been beat, but by a trustee, a black trustee who had been told he better beat her hard or he too would be beat.
NORTONNow that was for the purpose of simply finding out what the bail money was. And then after you found that out, then you had to go and get it. And as I recall, Andy Young had to come from Atlanta with the bail money, because we sure didn't have any money to get anybody out of jail.
NNAMDILawrence Guyot of course passed earlier this year. He was well known in Washington, D.C. as an activist. Can you imagine when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, in her local political role, looks up and sees Lawrence Guyot there as an activist in the crowd, the memories that had to have come flooding back to her. But here is Jeannie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jeannie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANNIEHello. I have a question for Congresswoman Norton. Can you remember back before the March happened, when it was just getting organized what you would have predicted to be what it was remembered for? Nowadays everybody thinks that's where the "I Have A Dream" speech was given and they forget even that there were other speakers or anything.
JEANNIEIt became the memorable event there, but it wasn't expected, I'm sure.
NORTONWell, you're absolutely right and I'm so pleased that you brought up how many things were happening at the March. Frankly, the March was -- each speaker was so extraordinary that by the time they got to Martin Luther King, he better had been good. All of that gets lost because his speech was kind of the ultimate vision of why everyone was there.
NORTONBut there was wonderful singing and, of course, people remember Mahalia Jackson. I don't know if they remember all of the -- but virtually every star was there and, of course, the stars were far fewer than they are today. But the March was a fantastic event through and through. And if Martin Luther King's speech hadn't been so spectacular, I think we would remember more of what had happened.
NORTONWe ourselves had demands. It was a march for jobs and freedom. And it had real content to it. And on indication of the importance of that content is that of its major demands, within a year, it had been fulfilled. Essentially, we asked for comprehensive civil right legislation that would include public accommodations and equal employment opportunity commission.
NORTONNow, it didn't include fair housing. That was to come after, frankly, the assassination in '68 and it certainly didn't include the right to vote, even though that was one of the demands. But in 1964, we did get the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in public accommodations and remember, the public accommodation sit-ins is what had raised the consciousness of much of the country.
NORTONAnd we got the EOC and that's what jobs and freedom was about.
NNAMDIIt seems to me that there is someone I know who used to be the chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She is now the Congresswoman of the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton in her 12th term as representative for the District of Columbia. We're taking a short break. We're having a conversation with Congresswoman Norton about the 1963 March on Washington of which she was one of the volunteers and organizers. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton who was one of the volunteers helping to organize that march. She is now in her 12th term as representative for the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton, you mentioned that Mahalia Jackson sang.
NNAMDIWell, when we spoke yesterday with Clarence B. Jones, he pointed out for us that Martin Luther King's speech was called "Normalcy No More," but now it's remembered as the "I Have A Dream" speech. And he described for us that the "I Have A Dream" component of that speech came about because of Mahalia Jackson. Let's give a listen.
JONESMahalia Jackson shouted to him as he was reading from his prepared text, tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream. And so in response to her command, he then segued into extemporaneous preaching including using a reference to a dream he has for his children. You know, it's now nice for us to talk about, well, he had this dream and so forth.
JONESBut it's important to recognize that his use of the dream, which he had used in other speeches before, on that occasion was totally in response to the command shout of Mahalia Jackson.
NNAMDIBecause it is my understanding that because the focus of that march was for jobs and freedom, there were those who knew about the dream, so to speak, who did not think that it would be appropriate to use it in that particular speech.
JONESThere may have been. There may have been, particularly from the labor -- there may have been, but the only division of view, in terms of the March on Washington was there were those who felt very strongly that in addition to the emphasis for civil rights, there should be an emphasis on economics and on the failure, I should say, of the country to provide meaningful economic opportunity.
NNAMDIIndeed, Congresswoman Norton, it was the march for jobs and freedom and one big focus of the March, which was sometimes overshadowed, was jobs. But you point out that need for jobs was very different from the need today. How so?
NORTONWell, the economy -- the unemployment rate was about 5 percent, of course. That means double that for African-Americans. And it's really very different from what we're talking about today. There was a demand for about unemployment and about a national minimum wage. But in terms of what Washington could do and what had been most visible in the civil rights movement, the public accommodations demand and that the experience of blacks that they had complained about throughout the march, that they could not be employed because of their race was something Washington could address and only Washington could address.
NORTONOf course, after Selma, you get the next of the great civil rights laws, but how did that come about? It was not a march on Washington, but it was the Selma march. In other words, here you have the government responding to activism and, of course, tragically responding to what turned out to be the most difficult, fair housing, only after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
NORTONI believe that one of the reasons there was no response and it was simply one of the list points under comprehensive legislation to the right to vote is that that would have meant taking on the southern Democrats in the House and Senate. Now, if you think about it, we could get an EOC, which was a major issue. It was so major that in 1940s as the World War II broke out, A. Philip Randolph had threatened a march on Washington.
NORTONAnd Bayard, by the way, was being mentored by him then and was key then. And Roosevelt, in fact, enacted a fair employment opportunity commission. It went out at the end of the war so you can see how important that demand was because you can have all the jobs you want to in this country, but as long as there is deliberate and overt discrimination of the kind there was in all parts of the country, not only in the South, having a full employment economy didn't matter or wouldn't matter much to African-Americans even if they were fully employed, which of course they were not.
NNAMDIJust yesterday, you hosted your 16th annual Job Fair for D.C. residents. The employment rate here is down. Jobs are scarce. And so even though it might be a problem that is slightly different than it was before, the problem of jobs still remains.
NORTONStill remains, especially after a grave recession. And I guess, Kojo, you, like me, are wondering how does one put all that together and get a direct result from these marches that are going to go on beginning on Saturday, the way we did for the March on Washington. Well, of course, it was harder and easier at the same time. There was no civil rights legislation so it was easier in the sense that the demands almost wrote themselves.
NORTONToday, it'll be very interesting to see what the demands are. You can imagine after the dismemberment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that that's got to be one. And Treyvon Martin, it seems to me, has put front and center what happens to African-American men in our country, particularly after the Stand Your Ground laws.
NORTONBut what you have now is a far more diverse set of actors who count themselves a part of the movement or as I put it, the multiple movements operating under an allied umbrella. Whereas in 1963, there was on issue and that was race and one demand, eliminate racism and that's because it blanketed the country and the denial of equal opportunity was thorough going in every part of American life.
NORTONSo nothing else came to the fore except the state of African-American rights at the time.
NNAMDIHere now is Todd in Falls Church. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TODDHi, Kojo. How are you doing?
TODDOh, boy. I was at the March in '63 with my mother and my younger brother who, only a year younger than me, has great pride in being the youngest white person at the March, as do I. And I invited a friend to go with us from my swim team, but his parents feared some trouble and he wasn't allowed to go. And if you look at the historic photo of Dr. King on the steps with the Washington Monument in the background, he's gesturing. And if you draw a line straight down from that, that's where we stood on the north side of the reflecting pool.
TODDAnd if you've got a moment, I have three vivid recollections of the March.
NNAMDII'll take one.
TODDOkay. I grew up in Arlington in Dominion Hills next to the headquarters of the American Nazi Party lead by George Lincoln Rockwell, who was this...
TODD...madman charismatic who showed up at civil rights marches to make trouble and try to generate publicity and raise money from John Birch-types to run for governor of Virginia in 1965 on the American Nazi Party ticket, which he did do and got 10,000 votes. Anyway, he wanted to go to the March on the Mall and the authorities said, all right. We'll let you go, but you can't wear your uniforms and you got to be corralled in one little area at the base of the monument.
TODDAnd that's where he was relegated, in this sort of minor spot there off in a distance.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Todd, because one of the things we talked with Clarence B. Jones about yesterday and I'm going to ask Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton about now has to do with precisely the notion that the authorities thought that there might be violence. By the way, if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can hear the entirety of our interview, my conversation with Clarence E.B. Jones. That's at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIBut Congresswoman Norton, this was your home. At the time, of course, it was being administered by people who were appointed by the White House, but there was some concerns that the organizers had about violence in this town. What did you think about that back then?
NORTONI laugh because it seemed to us to be laughable, but I have to say that the Kennedy administration discouraged the March. They were afraid of violence. And I think their reason for discouraging it is because there had never been a mass march on Washington. And they were -- you know, leave aside the fact that we had been 100 percent nonviolent. They were concerned that there would be violence.
NORTONHere's where Bayard Rustin's brilliance comes in. You know, they wanted to have troops. Rustin said, oh, no, no troops at this march. If you have some troops, you ought to somehow station them on the outskirts of Washington 'cause there will be other people coming in. And he did have lots of volunteer cops who came from New York, but they came disarmed and they and others wore armbands that said they were a marshal to the march.
NORTONAnd you have never seen anything as peaceful as that and joyous as that march was. The spirit of 10 years of nonviolence had so penetrated those who wanted to engage in civil rights or through the march to become part of the struggle that violence was the least of our concerns, although it was paramount to the Kennedy administration who thought there'd be violence and then they'd be blamed for it.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding of this administrators of this city tried to persuade black preachers to dissuade their congregations from attending because of fear of violence.
NORTONOh, my. I didn't know that because I was in New York at the time.
NNAMDIYeah, that's my understanding. Some feel that legal decisions on things like the Voting Rights Act and Congressional action or inaction on issues like jobs and prison reform are chipping away at gains made in the civil rights arena. What is your take on the current state of civil rights and the movement and how would you characterize that movement today?
NORTONWell, I would say that what the movement has accomplished cannot be gainsaid. There's no question. You have three civil rights laws there to show for it. But at the same time, when you see the Supreme Court declare an important section, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, not unconstitutional, but incapable of being enforced again until renewed, you can see that the old adage that civil rights, you have to fight it in every generation, is certainly coming true.
NORTONAnd the great recession has brought to the fore what, I think, Clarence Jones just said about economic issues as being paramount today. After all, we have laws that say that you can be hired. We don't have jobs for those who are fully qualified to be hired. So somehow or the other if these marches -- because it looks like there's going to be more than one, are to be successful, they're going to have to take on issues that have been raised by our times.
NORTONYou will see that D.C., which was not given a second thought at the March on Washington, will do its own statehood rally just before the March on Saturday to make sure that you don't go around us or below us.
NNAMDIExactly right. There are a number of anniversary events planned for this coming week. We're going to try to make sure that if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can find a link there to what's taking place. Congresswoman Norton, thank you so much for joining us.
NORTONAlways a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDICongresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is in her 12 term as a representative for the District of Columbia. She was one of the volunteers helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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