One Historic March, Countless Striking Moments

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We started our historical Twitter account, @TodayIn1963, in June with the idea that we wanted to bring this monumental summer back to life with a modern take.

NPR librarian JoElla Stralley, Code Switch's Matt Thompson and I combed through primary sources and archived newspaper articles to replicate the moments of that era. We saw first-hand the ways that different newspapers handled Civil Rights coverage, often filling a small span of their pages with protest stories from the AP or UPI, or even with Q and As that felt eerily modern. This was our chance to re-tell the story of 1963, but this time with greater detail and in a contemporary way.

The summer of 1963 was bursting with drama and would become a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights movement. It was the year that Alabama governor George Wallace tried to block — physically and politically — two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones, from enrolling in the University of Alabama; the year Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his own driveway; and the same year that brought together more than 200,000 protesters for the March on Washington for better jobs and equal treatment.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. So often we forget or overlook the minor but telling details of the day and of that summer. And today's the day. We've researched and compiled more than 100 tweets to bring Aug. 28, 1963 to life and add texture to that moment.

Here are 10 moments big and small from Aug. 28, 1963 that often get overlooked:

  • At 3 a.m., the National Council of Churches launched "Operation Sandwich" and had hundreds of volunteers making about 80,000 bagged lunches. The lunches sold for $0.50 each and came with a slice of American cheese on white bread, an apple and pound cake.
  • The Mall was so crowded that many folks went temporarily missing, including actress and singer Lena Horne, as well as Jackie Robinson's son, David. Both Lena and David were announced missing via the $16,000 loud speaker system acquired for the event.
  • John Lewis had to tone down his original speech after pressure from March organizers. In Lewis' prepared text: "In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill." In Lewis' actual speech: "It is true that we support the administration's Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however." (Read his full prepared remarks and compare it to his actual speech.)
  • Hazel Mangle Rivers of Birmingham, Ala., paid $8 — one-tenth of her husband's weekly salary — for a bus ticket to Washington, D.C. She told New York Times reporter Frank Powledge of her experience at the March: "Why, when I was out there at the March, a white man stepped on my foot, and he said 'Excuse me' and I said 'Certainly,'" Rivers said. "I believe that was the first time a white person has ever really been nice to me."
  • By 2 p.m., thousands of folks had already drifted out of earshot and left the ceremony, when the speeches officially began. They missed Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech.
  • After the March, the roads were eerily quiet, so much that Thomas Gentile wrote of the day: "Indeed traffic was so light in Washington that day that a [Washington] Star reporter called it 'a harried motorist's dream of heaven.' .... By dusk the city seemed strangely deserted."
  • The New York Times reported on Aug. 29 that only four people were arrested in relation to the March: one was a member of the American Nazi Party who tried to address a group of counter-protesters without a demonstrator's permit, one was throwing rocks at a bus filled with marchers, another had a loaded shotgun and the fourth stole a protestor's sign and tore it up.
  • Some folks saw their trip to Washington, D.C. as a chance to march for civil rights and see the capital. They posed like tourists for photos and even rode the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.
  • George Lincoln Rockwell, American Nazi Party leader, tried organizing a crowd of about 70 counter-protesters at the base of the Washington Monument. He left the March in disgust, saying he was ashamed of his race.
  • Bob Dylan sang "Only A Pawn In Their Game," a tribute to Medgar Evers. The song, as Bilal Qureshi writes, "leans hard on the idea that Evers' killer was not the only guilty party."
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