August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of what was originally called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the years since then, the name has lost “Jobs and Freedom,” and most people, myself included, have always thought of it simply as the March on Washington. I wasn’t aware of the full name until I found this image of a button online.
The event was a watershed moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, but I knew little about it other than the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s seminal “I have a dream” speech, which became emblematic of the entire struggle, and still has the power to inspire.
It was a revelation when I saw the “Civil Rights Roundtable,” a 30-minute television program broadcast from a CBS studio in Washington, DC later in that day on August 28th. It turns out this video has been widely available online via YouTube at numerous sites, but I only recently became aware of it.
What gets me is the immediacy of the discussion; it’s happening in the moment rather than looking back, and therefore more alive. I had a similar experience some years ago when I read The Frontier World of Doc Holliday, a biography by Pat Jahns that contains newspaper articles written at the time. I was struck by how much more vibrant and real this felt than more traditional historical accounts.
The roundtable is moderated by David Schoenbrun, a veteran newsman who had worked with Edward R. Murrow at CBS. The panelists include Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, film director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Marlon Brando, and author James Baldwin, all of whom had come to Washington specifically for the march. Those who find Charlton Heston’s presence here curious because of his staunchly pro-gun position (he was a five-term president of the NRA from 1998 to 2003) and conservative politics might be surprised to learn of his prior political activism as a Democrat, supporting liberal candidates and causes, and a strong supporter of Civil Rights. Heston and the other panelists, especially Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, come off as very smart, extremely articulate, and passionate in their beliefs.
I’ve watched the video several times, and moments that stand out include the following:
Marlon Brando saying the March on Washington is “one step closer to understanding the human heart.”
Joseph L. Mankiewicz saying he’s concerned with “human rights” rather than “civil rights.”
Sidney Poitier referring to the “Negro question” rather than the “Negro problem.”
Charlton Heston saying that even though he had picketed restaurants in Oklahoma two years before, he’d mainly expressed his support of Civil Rights by talking about it at cocktail parties. But earlier that summer (1963), he realized he could “no longer pay lip service to a cause that is so urgently right and in a time that is so urgently now.”
Mankiewicz saying “True freedom is not given by governments. Freedom is taken by the people.”
Heston, speaking of the March, “…the end is not yet, but perhaps this is a beginning,” and that “the importance and difficulty of the times ahead cannot be over-emphasized.” He goes on to quote from memory a passage written by Thomas Paine during the early months of the American Revolution: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Much of this discussion seems so timely and relevant to our times. The effect of what is said is both chilling and exhilarating, none more so than this stunning closing statement from James Baldwin: “The nature of the problem is so complex that one can’t simply say ‘jobs’ or ‘schools’ or ‘houses.’ It’s a whole complex of things. Jobs alone won’t solve it; schools alone won’t solve it. It’s in the social fabric. It isn’t anything, it’s everything. The first step has to be somewhere in the American conscience. The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent the nigger. I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. The world decides that you are this…for its own reasons. It is very important for the American that he face this question… that he needed the nigger for something.”
I don’t think this question has ever been answered, but it’s inspiring to watch this program — a moment in history — and see people trying to grapple seriously with issues that are still with us today. See for yourself. – Ted Hicks