How the March on Washington was Viewed in 1963
From my review of “Report Civil Rights,” Library of America's massive (and much-recommended) collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts and in-depth magazine articles on the civil-rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which appeared in The Seattle Times 10 years ago:
Appropriately, some of the articles upend our warm, hazy view of [the March on Washington].
True, E.W. Kenworthy of The New York Times wrote that the demonstration had “an air of hootenanny about it”; but Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration hijacked the march's original intent — a one-day sit-in to “completely immobilize the Congress” — and turned it into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”
Bitterness? The March on Washington? Indeed. In Marlene Nadle's Village Voice article, in which a busload of New Yorkers ride to the march, a white Peace Corps volunteer talks, with perhaps too much paternalism, about why he wants to help Nigeria. Suddenly a black activist shouts, “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don't need your kind. Get out of our organization.”
To me, though, the most fascinating thing about the Library of America collection remains its lessons in journalistic objectivity.
From 1946 to 1963, most articles gave both sides of the argument, black rights vs. states' rights, and the journalist didn't choose sides. This is what Negroes think, this is what Southerners think. Decide for yourself.
That began to change after Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the JFK assassination. Among the societal assumptions ecompassed within journalistic objectivity, in other words, was the assumption, post '63, that Negroes had gotten a raw deal in the South and beyond. “The moral issue was simply too stark, and segregationist logic too twisted,” I wrote 10 years ago. “By June 1963, even The New York Times was referring to the White Citizens Council as 'a racist organization.'”
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ...”