They came as if to a picnic, with their songs, their hard-boiled eggs and fried chicken — and their demands for freedom and jobs. Then, almost magically, they were gone. The vast body of the 210,000 marchers — hot, dirty, bone tired — was gone by 9 p.m.
They left: The unshakable conviction that the revolution started in Birmingham this spring did not end Wednesday. Negroes will march in the streets of other cities. Their protest will continue because when people sing, and sing as the marchers did, their grievances are too deep; they cannot be crushed.
If you saw the march on television and think you know its sounds and smells, and its meaning, you are wrong. The television lens is orderly but cold. Its view is no more accurate than an admiral in the Pentagon moving ships of a fleet on a board. The sailor has no sense of the movement of the fleet but he is the only one who knows the meaning of the battle.
I was there. From 5:30 a.m. until late in the afternoon I was on the grounds of the Washington Monument, at Union Station and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This is the way it was. At 5:30 the streets of Washington were empty; there was the strangeness of early Sunday morning. One large department store did $22 of business.
Another reporter and I drove through the deserted streets to Union Station. It was there, at 8:30 a.m., that the spirit and meaning of the march began to show.
Within 30 minutes the main body of the marchers were arriving on two and three separate tracks. They arrived, some of them almost simultaneously from Springfield, Mass., and Charleston, S.C.
They poured through the gates in dark streams, dotted frequently with white faces. There were all types: the wealthy, self-conscious and over-dressed youths, beatniks, numbers of clergymen; they wore uniforms, bright blue “NAACP” hats, neatly pressed suits of unmistakable quality, overalls and bandanas.
The delegates from the South entered swinging their arms, shoulders swaying with songs that crashed and rolled across the station platform. From the North, they came almost timorously through the gates, looking with interest, but silently, at the streams of singing marchers from the South.
A young Negro from New Haven, Conn., explained, “We don’t know the words.” Those from Charleston and Savannah did. “I got a hammer and I got a bell,” the chorus of hundreds sang and then crashed into the refrain, “It’s the hammer of justice and the bell of free-e-dom ...”
And, there was the hymn, sung joyfully, that I was to hear for the first time that day, on the monument grounds, during the march and at the Lincoln Memorial: “We are not alone ... We are not afraid … Deep in my heart, I do believe, we will overcome some day.”
Then, back through the still-empty sections of the city to the monument grounds where by 11:30 there were already 100,000 massed, and yet only half were there. Walking through the crowd, there was no talk of freedom. Just the idle chatter of picnickers. Many sat on the ground. They ate sandwiches, deviled eggs and fried chicken. Some sang along with the entertainers.
There was no jamming or disorder as they marched down Constitution Avenue on one side, and Independence on the other, to the reflecting pool, which mirrors the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the Washington Monument from the other.
Police lines kept the mass flowing in two streams. When the Independence Avenue stream merged with the other at the memorial, they began to form a pool, then a sea — a hot, thick, sea of people. As I inched through the mass, jammed shoulder to shoulder, a chilling thought occurred. “How many would be trampled if some lunatic started firing into the crowd from the monument?”
With some relief, I squeezed out of the crowd, mounted the memorial steps and walked to the press tables at Lincoln’s left. There is no way to describe that sea of faces flowing away far below. How can 200,000 people crushed together be described? In the crowd moments before, I knew the heat, the smell of dust, and felt the awful pressure of the crowd. But, far above them in the cool breeze, they were not real.
For four hours they stood pressed together, the lucky ones at the back sitting with their feet in the pool. The speeches — moderate and militant — were mostly dull.
My interest and the crowd’s mostly responded to the singing. Peter, Paul and Mary were the best. The crowd also cheered the biblical oratory of Martin Luther King “I have a dream ...” He is a good speaker, but I had had enough of speeches.
Then it was over. By 4:30, the sea was draining away.
There is much more to tell about their going, but this is the central point: They went away from their capital feeling the strength and unity of their numbers. For one unreal day they heard the demand, “Freedom,” from every throat.
Now they are home in the real world. Their demands are not heard so clearly there. They will try to make them heard and there will be trouble for a long time.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.