03/10/2013, by CLAS

The March on Washington 1963 and the Untold Stories Behind the Dream

Co-convened by three professors of American History and American Studies — Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson, Sharon Monteith and Marcia Chatelain, from Germany, Britain and the US — a September 2013 symposium reflected the global impact of the March on Washington by forging a transatlantic conversation in the city of the March. Hosted by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC and co-funded by the University of Nottingham, Georgetown University and the Institute, it brought together civil rights organizers and scholars with the general public at its keynote event, “Martin’s Dream: The Global legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” where Professor Clayborne Carson posited that Dr King’s “most important contribution was that he not only understood his place in a larger African American freedom struggle but also the place of this effort in a global freedom struggle”.  Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), whose  speech  from the platform  was, for many, as powerful as King’s, was unable to attend but he sent a video message for the opening of the conference and a centerpiece was the exhibition of Leonard Freed’s photographs of ordinary folk among some 300,000 people present on August 28 1963. Curator Paul Farber told some of the stories behind Freed’s images and their publication as This is the Day: The March on Washington (2013).  Our commemoration of this important civil rights anniversary included activist-participants who marched on that hot August day 50 years ago and activists who questioned the efficacy of the March in order to debate the impact of the event, both then and now.

The “I Have a Dream” speech has been especially highlighted in media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the key symbols of a twentieth-century social justice struggle but some of the neglected or untold stories relate to, for example, political sympathizers in the UK, and the inequalities which immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan faced — including racial violence exemplified by the murder of Kelso Cochrane in London in 1959, as Stephen Tuck demonstrated. In the US, African American conservatives and radicals opposed the march for very different reasons— and, as Angela Dillard, pointed out,  the Reverend J.H. Jackson of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, and head of the National Baptist Convention, characterized the idea of the March as a dangerous and unwarranted rejection of law and order.

Speakers at the commemoration included Courtland Cox of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was  a member of the Steering Committee for the event in Washington in 1963; A. Peter Bailey, founding member of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in 1964; Freedom Rider and SNCC activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, the extraordinary “ordinary” woman who is now the subject of the documentary An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (2013) and which speaks to one of the conference’s key concerns: that the stories of activists and participants receive sustained attention. Speaker Ella M. Kelly, for example, volunteered for the Red Cross and attended to marchers whether suffering from heatstroke or heart attacks. Driving an ambulance on the day of the March, she witnessed the event from behind the scenes and her experience spoke directly to the conference theme. A number of important African American women were invited to share the platform but none were invited to make a speech and our conference paid attention to those whose voices were unheard and whose stories risk being lost behind our celebration of a great event and a groundbreaking speech.

Scholars from South Africa, Germany and the UK explored with US colleagues the transnational and cultural crossovers that were lived out by some of our participants, like Heinrich Grosse who published the first scholarly account of King’s life in German in 1971 and who explained what drew him to the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s in support of the civil rights movement. Grosse and another theologian, Michael Haspel, examined how the so-called “Peaceful Revolution” that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was influenced both by civil rights protest methods in the 1960s and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1980s.  Theirs was only one of the stories told. In total, some 30 civil rights and social movement scholars came together in interdisciplinary ways to discuss and debate, to agree and to disagree, and to tease out more and varied stories behind the Dream: Eric Arnesen, Erin Chapman, David Chappell, Marcia Chatelain, Cerue Diggs, Angela Dillard, Paul Farber, Allison Graham, Heinrich Grosse, Duchess Harris, Michael Haspel, Maurice Jackson, Peniel Joseph,  Mark Malisa, Sharon Monteith, Suleiman Osman, Christopher Phelps, Stephen Tuck, Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson, Brian Ward, Stephen Whitfield. Delegates included educators, librarians and an archivist, other historians, a journalist and a human rights activist and publisher.    

The legacy of the 1963 March on Washington is long and the individuals whose lives have been touched by this historic event are many. But there remain stories about the March, its preparations, its contestations, and its legacy, that are yet to be told, and which deserve further and more sustained study. Our project promoted a transnational and a multidisciplinary approach to civil rights scholarship and encouraged a lively exchange of ideas. We hope that will continue with future events.

Sharon Monteith, Professor of American Studies and Director of Research for the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies

The photograph is of conference co-organizers Sharon Monteith (Nottingham), Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson (The GHI) and Marcia Chatelain (Georgetown) with keynote speaker Prof. Clayborne Carson (Stanford).

Posted in American and Canadian Studies