During the past week there were countless articles, video clips, and broadcasts marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom – the event on the Mall involving up to 300,000 people gathered to promote civil and economic rights, which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Although there have been better-attended events on the Mall – for example, the crowd gathered for President Obama’s first inauguration, which I witnessed firsthand in 2009, may have been more than three times larger – there can be little doubt that the 1963 March, in terms of its historical resonance, will always stand as one of the pivotal events of American history.
But there have also been many other memorable occasions involving the Mall and the Memorial. This week Emma Fidel and Jane Hwang at Bloomberg.com presented a slideshow featuring some of the most celebrated of these.
The slideshow begins on Easter Sunday 1939, when, in an era when schools and public facilities in the District of Columbia were segregated, about 75,000 people gathered before the Lincoln Memorial to see Marian Anderson give a concert, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, after the beloved African-American contralto vocalist was denied the right to perform in Constitution Hall because of her race.
The next slide shows Dr. King, standing on the Memorial steps, addressing an enormous audience – but it is not August 28, 1963, but rather May 17, 1957. What brought the civil rights leader to Washington during the Eisenhower years was an event called the Prayer Pilgrimage For Freedom, convened to mark the third anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of integrating American public schools. About 30,000 saw Dr. King speak on this occasion.
After the third slide showing the 1963 March, the follow-up concerns the October 21, 1967 events when opponents of the Vietnam War descended on Washington. The accompanying photograph shows Dr. Benjamin Spock of Baby And Child Care fame leading a crowd of around 100,000 before the Memorial that included writers Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer; singers Peter, Paul and Mary and Phil Ochs; and Yippie radicals Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who had only recently come to national attention. After the rally at the Mall, a third of the crowd walked to the vicinity of the Pentagon, where Ginsberg led a symbolic attempt to “levitate” one of the world’s largest buildings before the proceedings degenerated into random violences, resulting in a number of arrests. Two years later Mailer published his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of that day, The Armies Of The Night.
With the fifth slide, the viewer is brought to the Memorial again – on May 9, 1970, in the hours just before dawn, when a crowd of college students and other youthful protesters, sitting sleepily on the Memorial steps after a day of gathering to protest the Vietnam conflict (and also the deaths of five students during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State), looked up to see a group of men approaching them. It consisted of several Secret Service officers; Dr. Walter Tkach, White House physician; Manolo Sanchez, the Presidential valet; and President Nixon himself.
For the next two hours or so RN talked to the young people around him, asking about their schools, trying his best to establish common ground at a time when the “generation gap” was so much a part of the national consciousness. The photograph chosen for this slideshow – taken by one of the demonstrators, since the White House photographers were all asleep – shows RN speaking with two sleepy and somewhat wary young women.
The following slides cover events at the Memorial from much more recent years, starting with the January 18, 2009 rally where a beaming President-elect Obama watched Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Garth Brooks and Stevie Wonder celebrate his Administration-to-be in song. It continues with Glenn Beck’s controversial “Restoring Honor” rally of August 28, 2010. One would expect that to be followed by Jon Stewart’s much-publicized “Rally To Restore Sanity” (and Stephen Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek counterpart, “Rally To Restore Fear”) held at the Mall two months later as a riposte to Beck, but instead the slideshow highlights a rather less well remembered anti-Beck gathering from October 2, 2010 led by Al Sharpton. The slideshow concludes rather anticlimactically with an October 20, 2010 rally opposing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The Bloomberg.com presentation is a useful reminder that the Washington Mall and the great monuments there have been an important gathering place for Americans to express their opinions since well before the 1963 March, and that they serve an essential purpose in the role of our democracy, as an affirmation of the Constitutional rights to free expression and free assembly.