Of all the many marches on Washington, going back to at least the 1890s, the 1963 civil rights march had perhaps the most lasting impact -- influence that lasts to this day.
The Aug. 28 march was the largest ever in Washington -- with as many as 300,000 participants -- and the first to be nationally televised. If something went wrong -- and many people believed, and even secretly hoped, that something would -- there would have been no way the presidential spinmeisters could gloss over it.
The Kennedy White House feared violence or mayhem or something else bad. But the march was peaceful and orderly, drawing a happy crowd. And the success of that march was an important step in putting the civil rights movement in the mainstream of American politics.
That day’s high point was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which entered the canon of American ideals as a ringing statement of where we hope to be someday as a nation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that we are close enough to that day that it could eliminate parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the march was instrumental in helping pass. If that decision turns out to have been mistaken, and rear-guard racists try to discourage minority voting, King’s ringing 1963 words on equality will again be invoked, having lost none of their power.
Less noticed that August Saturday 50 years ago were the seeds of two movements that would shape modern America: feminism and gay rights.
The march was sponsored by the “Big Six” civil rights groups, but the man who made it happen was an activist and labor organizer named Bayard Rustin. However, Rustin’s resume required that he stay in the background: He was gay, a former Communist and a pacifist who served time in prison during World War II.
The political wisdom of the day dictated that he stay out of sight.
The civil rights leaders who gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were all male. Even civil rights icon Rosa Parks, instigator of the 1955 Birmingham bus boycott, a major turning point in the civil-rights movement, was introduced but not invited to speak.
The oversight did not pass unnoticed by the black women who did so much of the movement’s heavy lifting and scut work, backstage and out of sight.
Now, here we are 50 years, several wars, urban riots and recessions later. One hopes we’re a wiser, more tolerant and more forward-looking people, as King would have wanted it.