On Aug. 28, 1963, as part of the historic March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his electrifying, era-defining “I Have a Dream” speech in front of some 250,000 spectators and a national television audience. In the end, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would move a nation to action. President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated by that year’s end, but Lyndon B. Johnson would carry on the martyred president’s civil rights agenda (and then some). Both a public accommodations bill and a voting rights bill would become law, despite passionate opposition from segregationists.
Behind the scenes, however, the March on Washington almost collapsed under the strain of massive bickering and internal disagreements. In Nobody Turn Me Around, academic and author Charles Euchner does an excellent job of telling the lesser-known story of the internal contradictions that nearly destroyed the historic event.
Pulling the march together was far from easy. Organizers intended to put public pressure on the Kennedy administration to support a new civil rights bill that would guarantee blacks equal treatment in public accommodations. The march was organized jointly by several civil rights groups around a theme of nonviolent political action. Like any mobilization of a broad coalition, the more radical elements inside the civil rights movement complained that the message was being watered down for mass consumption. President Kennedy, unsurprisingly, asked organizers to cancel the march, which he deemed needlessly provocative. Black Muslim Malcolm X, on the other hand, refused to join because it wasn’t confrontational enough, satirizing the event as the “Farce on Washington.”
The two men who seemed to arouse the most heated debate were prime march organizer Bayard Rustin and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee president John Lewis. Rustin was attacked both inside and outside the civil rights movement as a political liability with three strikes against him as a former communist, a draft dodger, and a homosexual. Indeed, segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond would publicly attack Rustin, asserting that Rustin’s “background showed the moral depravity of the March on Washington.”
As for Lewis, he had planned to deliver an incendiary speech castigating Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as too little too late. As Euchner describes it, Lewis’s radicalism threatened to shatter the march’s fragile coalition. Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, a Kennedy ally, “was supposed to deliver the invocation, but he would not come...,” writes Euchner, “unless John Lewis deleted the objectionable passages from his speech.” Euchner details the ensuing drama as march organizers pleaded with Lewis to tone down his rhetoric. Though he relented in the end, Lewis’s final speech was anything but conciliatory: “We must say wake up, America, wake up,” Lewis intoned, “for we cannot stop and we will not and cannot be patient.”
Euchner also offers us accounts from dozens of grass-roots civil rights activists who rode buses and trains to Washington from places like Harlem, N.Y.; Georgia; and Mississippi. There were tensions here, too, as black activists hardened by police brutality argued about the wisdom of making common cause with white liberals. Euchner also explores conflicts over protest music, with white performers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez taking criticism from black activists like Dorie Ladner “that the March on Washington turned music into a passive spectator activity. It was a concert, a Newport festival, not a rousing call to action.”
Euchner fittingly concludes with King’s epic speech, every bit as indignant as Lewis’s, yet elevated by its soaring biblical language. “No, no, we are not satisfied,” King told his listeners, “and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Euchner explores the gathering power of King’s speech as he describes the historic sufferings of black Americans as something redemptive, uplifting. “[S]uffering – like Christ’s suffering on the cross – can bring a better day,” King insisted. “That suffering can change people’s hearts. That suffering can clear poison from the system.”
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.