Civil Liberties

Fear of a Black Demonstration

How the March on Washington was anticipated in 1963.


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, famous today for featuring Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Over at The Nation, Rick Perlstein contrasts the way the march is remembered now with the way nervous whites anticipated it then. The spectre of "angry black people massing in Washington, DC," he writes, was imagined as "violent chaos":

This is not what a riot looks like.

The first news stories about, as the first Associated Press story put it, "Police intelligence reports that 100,000 Negroes might march on Capital Hill," came on June 23…."It was learned from a top informant that Washington and Capitol police officials have expressed strong doubts that incidents could be avoided if 100,000 demonstrators, or even fewer thousands, began milling about Capitol buildings or grounds, or attempted to stage 'sit-ins' in or around the offices of any filibustering senators."…

The AP cited their inside source, the one who warned about the possibility of violence: "One plan under consideration…is an effort to induce leaders of civil rights groups in 'reasonable numbers' to accept a 'dramatic confrontation' meeting with congressional leaders and other appropriate Congress members as an alternative to sit-ins. 'Citizens have a right to petition the Congress,' this source said,' but they do not have a right to try to overpower it.' He said there has been official consideration of whether the police might have to be augmented by military personnel if no compromise can be evolved." The next day, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy warned the march's organizers off: while he had "great sympathy" for protest, "Congress should have the right to debate and discuss this legislation without this kind of pressure."

One day out: "Authorities still insisted they looked for no major trouble, but they were taking extraordinary precaution. For example, in a last-minute move, the District of Columbia commissioners prohibited all sales of alcoholic drink from midnight Tuesday night to 2 am Thursday. Some 5,000 police, National Guardsmen, deputized firemen, and police reservists have been assigned to crowd and trouble control duties. About 4,000 regular Army troops and Marines are in barracks nearby, with big helicopters ready to ferry them into the heart of the city if necessary."…The Milwaukee Sentinel had worried, "The danger is that a march turn into a stampede. That would be a tragic ending, to have the Negro equality movement dashed to death on the steps of the Lincoln memorial."