WASHINGTON — I did not stick around to see Glenn Beck’s extravaganza at the Lincoln Memorial, not out of protest but because I had work to do in Philadelphia. But I was more than satisfied by my memories of the earlier event at that site I’d covered for the old Washington Star, when the theme was civil rights and the speech of the day turned out to be the historic “I Have a Dream” oration by Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a lot of tension then at the Star and in the rest of white establishment Washington about that gathering of African-Americans and their sympathizers. I had been on vacation earlier in August at the family cabin in northern Michigan, and normally the Star did not pester me when I was on a break.
But Newby Noyes, our editor, wanted all hands on deck — because no one knew what would happen if the hundreds of thousands who were supposed to arrive by bus and caravan from across the country actually descended on the capital.
No one was more nervous than the Kennedy administration, as the memoirs later published by veterans of the White House and the Justice Department make clear. What sometimes is forgotten in the glow of King’s uplifting words is that this was a protest rally — and protests sometimes get out of hand.
The frustration was great because hopes for civil rights had been raised so high by Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric and by his decision to name his brother Robert as attorney general. The top ranks of the Justice Department were filled with civil rights advocates, but on Capitol Hill, the traditional opponents were slow-walking every bill, with scarcely an audible objection from the White House.
So no one in the press corps knew exactly how the drama would unfold that day or what kind of stories we would be writing by nightfall. I remember making my way from the Star office in Southwest Washington uphill to the Capitol and then down onto the Mall, where the crowds were beginning to assemble.
As their numbers increased, it became clearer and clearer that the mood of the day would be fellowship and the spirit one of brotherhood. Everywhere you looked, and everyone with whom you talked, you could see and hear people celebrating the friendships they had just struck up with their fellow “protesters.”
I filled my notebook with comments from marchers who had journeyed long distances, and I wrote down the reasons they gave me for making the effort. A few had specific political agendas — voicing their distaste for the blockades the legislation had encountered. But most said they had heard about the plans at church or at temple and simply decided they wanted to be part of it. They came to affirm their solidarity and, if you will, their humanity.
What became apparent, as the masses moved slowly along the Reflecting Pool and gathered before the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was that if this was a mob, it was the most benign mob in history.
Even before a word was spoken — let alone the eloquent words that have echoed down through history — it had become absolutely evident from the people themselves that achieving civil rights would be the way to heal, not damage, the country.
I went back to the Star wondering what it was we had been afraid of. And I’ve remembered this many times since, when people have tried to teach us to fear certain things, such as someone else’s marriage or place of worship.