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1963 march was cause for official caution, popular anxiety

The March was coming, and on 30th Street in Northwest Washington, people were talking about “troublemakers coming to town.” Charles Nalls was just a kid, but he remembers that. He remembers his neighbor, an FBI agent, talking about Martin Luther King Jr. as “a communist and an agitator.” The cop on the beat advised women in the neighborhood to stay home that day, just to be on the safe side.

It was Aug. 28, 1963, and Paul Kuntzler’s Washington office at the Structural Clay Products Institute was shut tight for the day. “There was this fear — people thought there were going to be riots,” says Kuntzler, who went to the march anyway, even though his partner was nervous, even though the president had ordered Army troops and National Guardsmen to be massed nearby, ready for the worst.

Ella Kelly didn’t have to miss work; the District of Columbia schools were shuttered that day. Teaching American history would have to wait. She intended to see some being made. She and her black neighbors read the same stories in the same papers as the whites read, the same warnings about danger and communists, but she scoffed at those notions. What she worried about was the Washington heat, the potential for sunstroke, and so she hurried down to the monument grounds early in the morning, to help out the Red Cross. She had no idea she’d be the only black volunteer in the health tent.

Out on St. Barnabas Road in Prince George’s County, Md., Jerry Fox’s friends kept asking him, “Do you think there’s going to be any trouble?” As he put on his uniform that morning, the District of Columbia police officer recalled what he’d been telling anyone who asked: “We’re going to protect the marchers — don’t worry, they’re well-organized.”

Half a century later, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is a historic pivot, a moment preserved in black-and-white footage of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, in film of blacks and whites together beneath Lincoln’s chair, all dressed as if for church, singing “We Shall Overcome,” listening to Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary, catching glimpses of Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston.

From the distance of two generations, the march was a triumph of hope and daring optimism, a testament to the power of righteous rhetoric, proof that the collective voice of the people paves the way for political and legal change. But in the moment, little of that could be foreseen.

In those steamy days of the summer before the president would be murdered, in that season when men of the law wielded dogs and fire hoses against black Americans who had the audacity to demand equality, in a city that was majority-black but firmly controlled by white authorities, the prospect of a march by hundreds of thousands of Negroes was cause for official caution and popular anxiety.

For the first time since Prohibition, the city banned the sale of alcoholic beverages for the day. Hospitals stockpiled plasma and canceled elective surgeries. The District of Columbia firemen’s union didn’t like it, but the city had ordered 350 of its members to switch roles and take on police duty on the day of the march. Washington police officers were banned from taking vacation; other forces received riot control training. Thirty Army helicopters patrolled the skies, swooping low over the Reflecting Pool. Four thousand troops stood ready in the Washington suburbs, and 15,000 paratroopers were placed on stand-by in North Carolina.

The District’s chief judge directed colleagues to be available for all-night bond hearings in case of mass arrests. President John F. Kennedy pre-signed executive orders authorizing military intervention if riots developed.

The Kennedy administration, worried that a black-dominated demonstration would crush the chances that its civil rights bill might pass in Congress, had Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach work with march organizers to recruit whites to attend the event to assure that images of the event were both peaceful and biracial.

Amid all this, the march’s leaders tried to find the right balance between mollifying the president’s concerns and remaining true to their goals. Chief organizer Bayard Rustin insisted that every speech and song be kept brief so the crowd could be ushered out of town before sundown. The march “will be orderly, but not subservient,” organizers announced. “It will be nonviolent, but not timid.”

By Aug. 28, 1963, blacks had demonstrated for voting rights and sat in at lunch counters and won school desegregation cases. But in Washington, life was still very much black or white.

On the day of the march, home builder William Levitt announced that he would not alter the whites-only sales policy at his new Belair development in Bowie. Despite picketing by members of the Congress on Racial Equality, despite a presidential order prohibiting discrimination in the sale of houses with federally guaranteed mortgages, Levitt said blacks could not afford and would not want to live in his development.

“The Negro is the same as any other minority group,” Levitt said. “He is clannish and tends to select neighbors who are of the same background and race.” Unless other builders opened housing to all, Levitt said, he could not afford the decline in sales that would result if blacks enjoyed equal access to his houses.

On the day of the march, The Washington Post published a letter from George P. Lucas of Pikesville, Md., who defended business owners’ right “to pick and choose their patrons for any reason they see fit. They can exclude would-be patrons because of the color of their skin, improper dress or uncleanliness.” Kennedy’s civil rights bill was clearly unconstitutional, Lucas said.

That same day, in Powhatan, Va., 130 miles from the District, 55 black children broke the color barrier at the county’s sole white public school. A federal judge barred the county’s plan to close the school rather than allow black children to enroll. The day proceeded peacefully, in part because 80 percent of white students stayed home rather than share a building with their black neighbors.

In Washington, the latest battle over integration followed an order by the city’s commissioners requiring barbers to cut the hair of anyone who sought tonsorial care. The barbers union, Local 239, protested the ruling, arguing that it would take seven years to train its members to cut black men’s hair.

On the day of the march, Washington’s baseball team, the Senators, did not play its scheduled game against the Minnesota Twins. Two other games, on the night before and on the evening of the march, were scrapped to ease traffic.

But the team’s management used the occasion to announce that they had finally eliminated the last barrier of segregation at their spring training headquarters in Pompano Beach, Fla. The team hotel, the Golden Falcon, a peach stucco place right on the beach, was whites-only; black players had been forced to find somewhere else to sleep.

Now, however, after General Manager George Selkirk threatened to take the Senators to another hotel, the Falcon agreed to accommodate all, regardless of color.

At the Capitol, House and Senate members instructed their secretaries to stay home and lock their doors. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Lawrence Spivak, in his first question to NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and King, asked how they could justify holding such a large demonstration when the authorities “believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.”

On the morning of the 28th, FBI agents, under orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover, phoned Heston and other celebrities in town for the march and warned them to stay indoors because there was likely to be violence, according to FBI documents cited in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch.

Days earlier, an FBI intelligence report had concluded that there was little or no communist involvement in the event. Hoover had reacted acidly, scrawling on the report, “This memo reminds me vividly of those I received when Castro took over Cuba.”

“I’m not saying that all those who are marching on Washington are communists,” Alabama Gov. George Wallace, D, told a Roanoke TV station. “I’m saying a lot of fine Negro citizens have been misled in this country and are being used by the communists to exploit them.”

Near the White House, as the crowd gathered, Simon Klennan, a longtime Washingtonian who disregarded his wife’s warnings against going downtown that Wednesday, told a reporter that black citizens were “absolutely justified” in taking to the streets. “They should get their freedom and their liberties and public accommodations and jobs,” he told Al Hulsen, a reporter for the National Educational Radio Network, a precursor of National Public Radio. “But at the same time, I think there’s a lot of communism mixed up in this.”

The reporter asked if he had “any definite evidence that there are communists here?”

“I don’t have any definite evidence, but you can generally pick them out,” Klennan replied.

“How can you do that, sir?”

“Well, by their looks, by their actions and things like that. Take some of these girls that fall all over these colored fellows. ... I think they’re actually mixed up in this communist movement that’s growing in the country, and I’m afraid of it, I’m afraid of it.”

But Klennan added that his wife’s worries that he’d get into an argument with someone down at the Mall were for naught because “I don’t think that we’re any better than the next fellow, whether he’s colored or whether he’s a Japanese or a Chinaman or what the devil he is. He’s a human being. We could have all been colored.”

Anxious about the possibility that violence might break out on the day of the march, the Kennedy administration had pressed organizers to permit only preapproved signs and to tamp down attendance by holding the event on a weekday rather than a Saturday.

Some black groups, fearing a public relations debacle, endorsed such limits. The NAACP made its support contingent on getting the crowd in and out of town in a matter of hours. Rustin, the chief organizer, agreed that it was imperative that the march be perceived as a mix of blacks and whites and avoid the “crackpotishness” of sit-ins, fasts and other more confrontational protests that had emerged around the nation.

“Unless we got white people into the street with Negroes for the march, the fight would appear to be between white people and black and not between justice and injustice,” he told The Post.

But other black groups, pushing for more direct action against segregation, said Rustin was caving to the white establishment. Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael boycotted the march; Malcolm X dubbed it the “Farce on Washington.”

“The white man” put his handpicked black leaders in charge of the march, Malcolm X told supporters later. “They took it over. And they invited a priest, a rabbi, and an old white preacher. Yes, an old white preacher. It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak.”

It didn’t look that way in Ella Kelly’s Washington neighborhood. There, as at Stuart Junior High on Capitol Hill, where she taught, Kelly and her mathematician husband could feel the walls of racial division crumbling. Her mother was a seamstress in Harlem, her stepfather a chef on the New York Central railroad — union members who earned a decent living but were marooned on one side of a racial gulf. A generation later, Kelly says she never “had that segregated experience. I could go to a top school, and once I moved to Washington, I taught together with white teachers, and we all got along.”

Not that everything was hunky-dory. When Kelly and her husband tried to rent a Washington apartment in 1961, the black woman who managed the building told them, “I’m sorry, but we don’t rent to colored.”

“We just looked at each other and laughed,” Kelly says. “A black woman telling us that! But she was just doing her job.”

In the summer of ’63, Kelly knew black business owners on U Street who viewed the march as a threat to their livelihoods. “Some said we’ll never be accepted fully anyway, so what’s the use. We should focus on building our own community,” she says.

Kelly heard other black people parroting politicians’ messages about communist infiltration of the march. Before the event, the papers predicted riots and political chaos; the Washington Daily News said, “The general feeling is that the Vandals are coming to sack Rome.” But Kelly told friends back in New York that “nothing’s going to happen. My only concern was all those people in their suits and hats on an August Washington day.”

From the Red Cross tent, she made a couple of runs with the ambulance driver to D.C. General Hospital, but the patients’ complaints were all heat-related.

“On television, Godzilla was coming, and there was a sense of fear and terror,” recalls Kelly, now 74. “But then the monster didn’t come, and the cars weren’t crushed.”

Charles Nalls, who would grow up to become a Catholic priest and canon law specialist, was only in third grade, but he could feel the fear.

He heard adults call for the National Guard to watch over the streets of Washington.

Young Charles spent most of his days with the family’s black maid, Jean Dabney, but there was no talk about race.

Charles knew even at a tender age that the silence masked a deep division. There were no black children in his classes at Lafayette Elementary School, and when the carnival came to town, there were separate white nights and colored nights. And it hadn’t been that long since the streetcars would stop in the middle of the 14th Street Bridge so black passengers could move to the back before rolling on into Virginia.

Paul Kuntzler, 21 and in Washington for just two years, had the day off. Since the first reports about the march, he’d planned to be there. For a young gay man from Michigan, the District sometimes seemed a very Southern town. At his first job, a young white female colleague was discovered to have a black boyfriend, and her co-workers — all-white, by policy — felt free to chastise her. At a banking institute where Kuntzler took classes, the instructor began class — all-white, by rule — with a racist joke.

Kuntzler, who went on to co-found the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and the District’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, was a regular at civil rights demonstrations, but this one was different. He went alone. His boyfriend, who worked on the Hill, didn’t get the day off. When Kuntzler went home that night, he was eager to tell the story of King’s rousing rhetoric, to describe how he’d seen people’s attitudes change before his eyes. His friend listened, but knowing that the FBI was suspicious about the event, he asked Kuntzler, “Did anybody see you go?”

If communists showed up at the rally, no one found them.

The American Nazi Party had promised to produce 10,000 sympathizers, but only 75 turned out, a tribute, party leader George Lincoln Rockwell said, “to the cowardice of the white race.”

A bus full of demonstrators was attacked with rocks on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But police reported only two arrests among the crowd of 200,000: a Nazi charged with making a speech without a permit and an Arlington man fined $10 for smashing up a demonstrator’s sign.