The March on Washington: Perspectives from the StoryCorps Archive
The StoryCorps Archive contains many stories about the Civil Rights Movement. These interviews give unique insight into the individual experiences, feelings, and memories of those who both lived through and participated in the movement. Many of the interviews were recorded as part of StoryCorps’ Griot initiative. StoryCorps’ Griot collection is an initiative focused on preserving the voices, experiences, and life stories of African Americans. All interviews recorded as part of the Griot Initiative will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, we are highlighting stories in which StoryCorps participants describe attending the historic 1963 event. The quotes below represent a few voices from the Archive that illustrate the sense of unity, camaraderie, and hope that was present that day.
James McWilliams shared his memories of the March with his wife. “It was unbelievable because the federal government surrounded the place with police and guards and thought this was going to be a violent thing. It was more like a Sunday outing. Blacks and whites were holding hands everybody was hopeful.”
Joyce Greene, who was a child at the time of the March, describes the atmosphere in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood. She was unable to attend the March because her mother was afraid she would get lost in the crowd, but she watched from a distance and listened to the live broadcast on the radio. “That day was like a heat blanket landed across the city. It was sweltering but it was so calm and quiet. There were like no cars moving, the streetcars, it was like they were shut down. Downtown was just a cluster of people from all races and nationalities.”
Corinne Barnwell recalls the scene the day of the March. “The march in the August of 1963 was much larger than anybody had expected. People came from all over – buses and buses. There was a strong spirit as well, it was like being in a religious procession. People were dressed in their church-best clothes and they were walking along and everyone had this expectation that we were going to be bringing about change, we were working towards justice.”
Judi Howe came in to speak with her granddaughters about the March on Washington. She describes the various issues that were being addressed at the March and the lengths people went to just to be there. “It was all about jobs, it was all about discrimination, it was all about freedom. Most everybody had some sort of a sign that talked about lots of big issues. Another thing we saw [was] all different ages of people. Some kids even walked for like hundreds of miles and days. There were people near us that were very old – some could hardly walk, some were blind. It meant a lot to them to do this. Everybody [had] arms about each other’s waist whether you knew one another or not. Everyone was singing songs.”
Doyne Michie spoke to his daughter about his work in the Civil Rights Movement. He traveled to DC to attend the March with his church and his 16-year old son. He remembers wondering about the make-up of the crowd. “I said we want some white faces to be part of the audience. We took two station wagon loads of people. It was my privilege to be there. There were a lot of white people there. I think we exaggerated the idea that we would be the only white persons.”
Lawrence Cumberbatch spoke to his son and grandson about being the youngest member of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He describes their journey from New York to Washington, D.C. and remembers the privilege of standing with other CORE members behind Dr. King during his famed speech. “We got on the podium and there was this sea of people and we were right behind King. It was just overwhelming. And people have said ‘well what did you think about the speech?’ I say nobody who was on that podium was thinking about the speech. It was just so mind-blowing to look at the sea of people. I felt such a sense of accomplishment. It was heavy, really heavy.”
Denise Jenkins-Thompson went to the March with her grandmother and her church. While at the time she did not appreciate the significance of the March, she came to realize that the March has been a source of inspiration for her. “I still laugh about that day. Wanting a bike instead of going down to the March on Washington. And that was my birthday day gift from my grandmother. But it was such a wonderful experience in retrospect. That experience washes over me all the time. I got something much better than a bike. I got a chance to open my eyes to change.”
Ollie Mae English Williams describes how the Martin Luther King’s speech made her feel and the memory that it elicited out of her. “When Mahalia Jackson sang that song, I cried. And when Martin Luther King said that speech, I just jumped up and shouted because it was so poignant. I mean everything was so poetic and I could feel that I have a dream. Although I was raised in Philadelphia I did go to the South to visit my great-grandparents and I remember distinctly going to the drugstore and buying a hotdog and a coke. I finally got my hotdog and I looked at it and thought the bun was toasted because it was dark in certain places and then I looked closer and the toast, the darkness started moving. The hotdog was covered with ants and the guy who was the soda jerk, white guy, I would always talk to him when I came in to buy cards to send back to Philly. He didn’t want to tell me that I couldn’t sit at the counter to eat, but served me a hotdog full of ants. It didn’t dawn on me until I got back to Philly as to what actually happened.”
StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 50,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants.