Early on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was empty apart from a few sightseers. But by midday, close to half a million people were massed peacefully among the monuments and museums for what became one of the most important events in the civil rights movement: the March on Washington.
What most people remember about that day, says author Charles Euchner, is the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave. "It's been reduced to four words, 'I have a dream,' over the years," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And those are, in fact, four of the greatest words ever uttered in American political oratory. But the reason they were so powerful was the people who were on the Mall."
Euchner's new book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington, tells the story of the march through the eyes and voices of the people who helped make it happen.
One of those people was march organizer Bayard Rustin, a veteran civil rights activist who had been a controversial choice to head up the preparations. "He was considered to have three strikes," says Euchner. "One, he was gay. Two, he was a war evader; he didn't serve in World War II. And three, he had once been a member of the Communist Youth Party in the U.S."
But labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who'd come up with the march idea, insisted on Rustin. And Rustin accomplished a seemingly impossible task: Given just two months to plan, he dealt with everything from transportation to bathroom facilities to wrangling celebrity guests, and he pulled it off almost without a hitch.
While Rustin handled the logistics, other march organizers battled over the message. Fiery youth leader John Lewis — now a congressman — had written a barnburner of a speech, expressing the frustrations of young people who'd been risking their lives on the freedom rides and who felt that the leaders of the movement were going too slowly.
"He used words like 'revolution,' and he said at one point that, 'We will lead a Sherman's march and destroy segregation ourselves if we have to.' Now when you talk about Gen. Sherman, them's fighting words in the South," Euchner says. Washington's Catholic Archbishop, Patrick O'Boyle, threatened to withdraw his support if Lewis left those passages in his speech.
Euchner says the conflict between Lewis and O'Boyle split the leaders of the march. "Some of the leaders said, 'You know what, these kids have a right to say what they want to say,' and others said, 'We risk driving a wedge right in the heart of our movement.' " Ultimately, Lewis allowed parts of his speech to be rewritten, and Euchner says the overall insistence on calm, nonviolent action was what gave the march its power.
"America saw the civil rights movement ... in all of its glory," Euchner says. "And they saw how dignified these protesters were, how clear they were, how fair-minded they were. And King and others were really conscious of presenting the best possible face to the public."
And on that day, as people stood in the hot sun watching King give his most famous speech, Euchner says they knew they were seeing something special. "Across the Mall, in little pockets of the Mall, people would shout out to each other, 'I have a dream!' 'I have a dream!' And they felt the electricity, and they knew that it was different, and that they and America had never seen anything like that before," Euchner says. "A lot of people since then have tried to recapture that magic, but it really is a one-time-only thing."