The March On Washington

Excerpted from America Will Be!: Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy

By Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda

Learn more about America Will Be! here

IKEDA: History is made in the present. Struggling day after day in the real world and winning one small victory after another, each generation inherits and seeks to realize the noble dreams of preceding generations. There is no greater adventure than participating in this mission.

As Dr. King aptly declared, “In the summer of 1963, the Negroes of America wrote an emancipation proclamation to themselves.” (1) His statement indicated that, in the year marking the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights movement, which had triumphed in the Birmingham campaign, surged forward to a new stage in its development. The event that symbolized this great progress was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held on Wednesday, August 28, 1963—a day that changed history.

At that time, I had been Soka Gakkai president just three years. In the midst of my hectic schedule, traversing the entire Japanese archipelago, I was intently focused on the progress of the civil rights movement.

How precisely did this historic gathering come about?

HARDING: I was involved in some of the early conversations in Birmingham that eventually led to the March on Washington. The powerful Birmingham campaign had ended by midyear, and we needed to respond to the widespread yearning of the people for more action toward freedom.

In keeping with our tendency as Americans, many people in the movement had the sense that things were moving too slowly, that we needed to develop a more robust strategy to impress on the country the great urgency and need for social change. As you probably know, my friend, in the Birmingham period there were hundreds of other freedom movement campaigns in other communities attacking segregation and many related forms of racial injustice. In addition, the Birmingham campaign had pushed President Kennedy, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and many of their official and unofficial group of advisors to see the need for federal commitment to civil rights as represented by presidentially initiated congressional action.

For King and other movement leaders, the original idea was for a massive march on Washington with participants literally streaming into the capital from every part of the country, demanding the passage of strong civil rights legislation.

So, this was the context for the beginning of the conversations about the March on Washington, a major event that indeed drew people from every region of the country.

IKEDA: I imagine that people felt the time had come for more change—for a new era to begin. Or perhaps we could say that they themselves created the new era.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, in the span of two-and-a-half months after the Birmingham campaign, a total of 758 demonstrations were held in 186 cities across the country.

During this period, an average of ten protests were held every day somewhere in the United States.

Dr. King wrote about the far-reaching impact of the movement:

Freedom was contagious. Its fever boiled in nearly one thousand cities, and by the time it had passed its peak, many thousands of lunch counters, hotels, parks, and other places of public accommodation had become integrated. (2)

The movement to abolish racial discrimination spread like wildfire throughout the country, especially in the South, and the walls of racial segregation began to crumble. The March on Washington was heralded as the event that would unify and further expand the movement.

HARDING: The leaders of civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, discussed the issue. Members of the Kennedy administration were included in the conversations, and at that point, the concept of the event changed.

The freedom movement up to that time was characterized by sit-ins, freedom rides, and the protest marches of the Birmingham campaign. The Kennedy administration’s response to the freedom movement, following the advice of leaders in the black community, was to draw up a civil rights bill, applicable to the entire United States, addressing all areas of public life, such as housing, education, public accommodations, other facilities, transportation, and the voting booth.

The administration’s policy was to enact laws that would create the means to ban racial segregation in the South and the entire nation. But President Kennedy and members of his administration were convinced that if an event as radical as a March on Washington were held, this would be used as ammunition by forces opposed to civil rights legislation.

IKEDA: Many leaders were concerned that by holding such a massive demonstration, violence might erupt and then sabotage the chances of enacting the civil rights legislation that seemed so close to becoming reality.

Leaders are always confronted with the choice of moving forward immediately or waiting for an opportune moment. Dr. King described the deliberations on the march: “It took daring and boldness to embrace the idea. The debate on the proposal neatly polarized positions.” (3) He was being pressed to make a difficult decision.

HARDING: Many persons were fearful that a massive March on Washington that drew thousands upon thousands of black people and their allies would invite violence by a small segment of the marchers. Therefore, the Kennedy administration and some of the more conservative black leaders proposed to feature King and some of the most conservative black leaders in a brief appearance, after which the gathering—which they hoped would be smaller than originally envisioned—would quickly disperse.

This general idea was the one that was eventually agreed upon. It was still called the “March on Washington” and was still essentially meant to be a mobilization of people for an unprecedented gathering.

But when people, including thousands of white allies, streamed into Washington, D.C., from every part of the country—by bus, plane, train, and car—to express their solidarity with the freedom movement and their support for national civil rights legislation, the march become a larger and much more substantial event than the Kennedy administration and conservative black leaders had counted on. The enthusiastic commitment of the people overran the most cautious approaches of the leaders. Fortunately, there was no violence.

IKEDA: This day will always be regarded as a shining moment in the history of the movement for racial equality. Some 250,000 people filled the National Mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It was reported that a fifth of the participants were white. Burning with idealism for a just society that would transcend racial differences, everyone gathered proudly, a powerful sight telling of the triumph of the nonviolent movement.

One of the marchers, just sixteen at the time and now an SGI-USA member, recalls:

It was such a hot day. Thanks to my parents, I had developed a keen interest in the civil rights movement during my childhood, and so I was absolutely thrilled about being a part of the March on Washington.

In front of the Lincoln Memorial, the leaders of the civil rights movement took the rostrum to speak, the crowd cheering and clapping enthusiastically at every opportunity. Dr. King movingly described this experience: “The enormous multitude was the living, beating heart of an infinitely noble movement.” (4)

Where were you during this time?

HARDING: On the day of the march, I was at a meeting of academics at the University of Notre Dame. However, I watched the event on television with my colleagues at the conference.

Whatever we originally had in mind when we first started conceptualizing the march, seeing such a grand spectacle—thousands upon thousands of like-minded people gathered together, all seeking a new reality and sensing the tremendous vitality of their combined energy—was exciting and inspiring.


The Joy of Awakening to Our Infinite Potential

IKEDA: Having committed yourself completely to the success of the movement, this must have been all the more moving for you. The last of the many speakers to ascend the stage was Dr. King. Standing in front of the massive white columns of the Lincoln Memorial and recalling the long history of hardships that had led the movement to this point, he proclaimed, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” (5)

Dr. King shared his vision of an American society based on the ideals of peaceful coexistence: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” (6) Through the media of television and radio, millions of people around the world heard Dr. King’s speech and were moved.

HARDING: The domestic and international response was enormous. It is interesting to note, and this is not well known, that King had given a similar speech about two months earlier at a major civil rights gathering in Detroit, Michigan, on June 23, 1963. His Washington speech was based on the earlier one, but he ad-libbed new elements—for example, the part about the “red hills of Georgia,” which was meant for the people who had gathered there from the South and had experienced the most violent opposition to the movement.

King spent a significant amount of his Washington speech outlining the difficulties that black people were experiencing in America, including poverty, police brutality, segregation in housing, and bad schools. This aspect of King’s speech has been completely forgotten. Only by taking seriously the long list of grievances that he presented can we understand the profound hope of his message, a hope in America that allowed him to say, “I still have a dream.” This is the true significance of his dream, that he held on to it in the midst of harsh opposition and was willing to carry on this struggle—with his allies—to make the dream a reality.

Daisaku Ikeda and Vincent Harding

IKEDA: It was a noble moment in history. Dr. King acknowledged that the long, cruel history of racial discrimination, together with the harsh realities of the day, could not be overcome immediately, while he urged people to join him in advancing toward realizing the dream of a much brighter future. Dr. King warned, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.” (7)

In the face of difficult circumstances, an effective leader must calmly, decisively instill hope and courage in people. King knew, I believe, that inside all people is hidden—even to themselves— great intrinsic potential and strength.

The Buddhist scriptures teach that all people are precious entities possessing inner wisdom and courage that can empower them to triumph over every hardship and enable their unique potential to shine with unparalleled brilliance.

A well-known story in the Lotus Sutra is the parable of the jewel in the robe: An impoverished man is invited to dinner at his wealthy friend’s house, where he gets drunk and falls asleep. The friend has to rush out to take care of an urgent matter, but before he does, he sews a jewel of unequaled splendor into the lining of the sleeping man’s robe. Unaware of the priceless jewel, the man embarks on a journey, drifting from country to country. When the man, by chance, meets up with his old friend again, the friend is surprised at the man’s poverty-stricken appearance. The friend tells the man about the jewel he had sewn into his robe, and the man is overcome with joy and gratitude.

This parable shows, in simple terms, the principle that every human is endowed with the Buddha nature of infinite potential and inestimable worth. It teaches us that the key to overcoming the constraints of our present reality, whatever they may be, lies within ourselves.

HARDING: The parable of the jewel in the robe is a clear and compelling parable that tells us that no matter how wonderful a gift we have, if we are not aware of it, we cannot draw upon it for strength when necessary. Perhaps that is why I continue to urge my fellow American citizens to recognize the likelihood that our newly developing multiracial identity is a gift for us and the world.

IKEDA: A key condition for the continuity and development of any movement or any society is the joyful awakening of its people to their infinite potential. The March on Washington, the iconic moment of the freedom movement, was an opportunity to convey the movement’s message of building a humane society—a message of vision and hope—to people all over the world.

HARDING: What I find most striking about King’s speech is his assertion that “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” The significance of his statement goes far beyond the rhetoric or oratorical skill with which it was delivered. It illustrates his inner struggle to maintain a sense of hope for America, even in the face of all the misdeeds and injustices heaped upon black people. Indeed, we still find it hard to create settings in which the “sons [and daughters] of former slaves and the sons [and daughters] of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” (8) to discover that they are brothers and sisters.

Speaking to the 250,000 people assembled there on the National Mall and an audience of millions all around the world, King’s difficult challenge was to accurately portray the painful story of the past and present while also demonstrating faith in the magnificent possibilities for the future. King admonished his listeners to acknowledge this moment in 1963 not as an endpoint but as a new beginning in the ongoing struggle for a transformed America.

It is tempting to latch onto the concept of “the dream” and leave the past behind, but to become mature as a nation, we need to honestly acknowledge the past on both a personal and collective level. We must not be overcome by the past but must deal with it with utmost honesty and, at the same time, embrace a hopeful view of the future. This is the only way that the dream can be meaningful and authentic as we continue to create a new present that leads to a transformed future.

IKEDA: A Buddhist text, the Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra, contains this famous verse:

If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present. (9)

To create a better future, we must examine the past and, at the same time, consider how to act in the present. This is the question constantly before us.

The twentieth century was undeniably a period of war and violence, and far too many people were victimized, their human dignity trampled underfoot. Unfortunately, this situation persists to this day.

The people of the twenty-first century must work tirelessly, with optimism and hope, so that our nations will mature as entities of cooperation and peace, and a mature global society can be created. This is the responsibility that each of us alive today must bear. Religion should play an important role in helping us to achieve this goal.

At the end of this momentous day, August 28, President Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College offered the closing prayer, thus drawing the curtain on one of the nation’s most historic events. Recalling that Mays had also been president in King’s Morehouse days, I sense in his participation that we were witnessing the culmination of a beautiful mentor-student relationship.

HARDING: King indeed began his journey on the path of nonviolence largely as a result of the influence of President Mays (see Conversation Six). I believe in the fundamental truth that we can most experience the full richness of divine love through our relationships with others. Whether it is in our relationships with our family, teachers, colleagues, or peers, we can experience the love of God in the richness of all these human relationships. Ultimately, it is through relationships that we discover our highest potential and are nurtured, shaped, and opened to new possibilities. The mentor-student relationship is certainly one beautiful avenue of self-discovery.

Life, Death, and Poetry

IKEDA: The mentor-student relationship lies at the core of any successful endeavor.

After the March on Washington, the freedom movement continued to expand vigorously throughout the country. But in response, the forces opposing its aims also became increasingly vehement. As we touched on earlier (see Conversation One), in mid-September 1963, only a few weeks after the march, a terrible incident took place: A Baptist church in Birmingham was bombed, and four young girls were killed. The church had been a point of assembly and departure for protestors during the Birmingham demonstrations.

At the funeral, Dr. King delivered his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” in which he sought to comfort the grieving families and community. He offered profoundly compassionate words of solace and encouragement to the survivors and a poetic prayer for the repose of the young victims’ souls. We can glimpse Dr. King’s perspective on life and death in the eulogy:

Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door that leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days. (10)

HARDING: King was influenced far more by philosophical ideas than by theological concepts. He was a person who understood the importance of the unity of all humankind and all life itself. It was also completely understandable that he would choose to see life and death in the context of a continuum, rather than as fragmented segments.

So many of the stories of where we come from and where we go from here are grounded in love and creativity. So, it was natural for King, who took life and love so seriously, to view life in this way.

And, of course, it is important to recognize that ultimately the only way that we can most fully talk about life or death is in poetry. King was in many ways a poet who loved the poetic expression of life.

I do not recall having any significant conversations with Martin about this matter of the transition from life into death. But King’s statements that you quoted certainly reveal his natural appreciation of the continuity of life and are in accordance with his understanding of the continuity of God.

IKEDA: In his eulogy for the children, Dr. King directly addressed the sorrow of the family and friends: “In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.” (11) Dr. King expressed hope that the “death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood.” (12)

To discover rays of hope, even in the darkest despair—this surely demonstrates the tenacious, indomitable conviction that enabled Dr. King to dedicate his entire life to his noble cause. His philosophy of hope was unshakable, as solid as a rock.

HARDING: Not long ago, as a participant in a powerful seminar at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, (13) I shared some of my personal experiences of dealing with death. This was important for me in the sense that I never before had taken the opportunity to contemplate deeply the meaning of death. In my exploration of death, one of the most important things that became clear to me was that I have lived a rich life, full of many, many gifts that I could not ever have imagined. So, it would be natural to assume that the continuity of life and death is not just the continuity of experience but the continuity of the quality of the experience.

An understanding I gained from that Ikeda Center gathering was that, just as I am grateful for the kind of life that I’ve been given, I will probably be grateful for the kind of death that I will be given as well. Somehow, the recognition of that continuity was a source of great joy for me.

IKEDA: In a lecture that I delivered at Harvard University in September 1993, I spoke on the theme of life and death, and shared the wisdom of Buddhism, which recognizes joy in both life and death. At the end of our lives, the most important question will not be how long we have lived but rather how well we have lived. Those who have lived a fulfilling, joyful life will be surrounded by limitless joy upon their death. I have witnessed the inspiring life journeys of many people who have died in this way. Even those who die in unexpected accidents or natural disasters retain the “treasures of the heart” (15) that they have accumulated through living a good, decent life.

To experience a “good death,” we must live a good life. I believe in the kind of good life in which we take action for and dedicate ourselves to the happiness of others. In Buddhism, this altruistic life is called the bodhisattva way. Living in this way gives us the power to transform the four sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death into the abundant joy of the four virtues of eternity, happiness, true self, and purity. Herein lies the purpose of our Buddhist faith. I am convinced that the honorable way in which you live your life and the way Dr. King lived his exemplify the noble bodhisattva way.

Returning to our topic, it was on July 2, 1964, the year following the March on Washington, that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, and he and Dr. King commemorated the event with a historic handshake. It was a victory that came as the nation was recovering from the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination the previous November.

Dr. King kept a demanding schedule, traveling all over the country and the world, continuing to advocate a philosophy of nonviolence in the movement for social justice. That autumn, he had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. This was when Dr. King received notice that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—an indication that his contribution to the nonviolent struggle against racial discrimination had been recognized and applauded.

HARDING: I remember that when we first heard rumors that King was being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, there was intense resistance in the white community in Atlanta and the rest of the South. For King to be publically, internationally recognized in this way would, of course, be a judgment on the opponents of the black freedom movement—a clear message that he was right, and they were wrong. Indeed, the prize meant that the world recognized Martin as much more than an American hero.

Even as the day approached for King to travel to Sweden to receive the award, an ongoing debate took place in Atlanta about whether a special celebration should be held upon his return. So, what was good news for us was not received as such by everyone. Ultimately, Atlanta city officials came to realize that this was an honor of which the city should be proud. A native of their city had become a hero honored by the world.

IKEDA: In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King spoke about the award as a recognition not just of himself but of the movement. He emphasized that he was accepting it on behalf of all the courageous people who helped develop and spread the movement and its philosophy of nonviolence.

Dr. King expressed his appreciation: “Every time I take a flight I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible, the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.” (16) He shared his thoughts about those who quietly supported the endeavor from behind the scenes: “You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.” (17) This was typical of Dr. King, who always retained his allegiance to the people, made their concerns his own, and fought on their behalf.

After Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, the movement evolved in the complex social and political context surrounding the Vietnam War.

Notes

1. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, with a new introduction by Dorothy Cotton (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 131.

2. Ibid., pp. 137–38.

3. Ibid., p. 144.

4. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clayborne Carson, ed. (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2001), p. 222.

5. Martin Luther King Jr., "I have a Dream" in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 218

6. Ibid., p. 219

7. King, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” in A Testament of Hope, p. 257.

8. King, “I Have a Dream” in A Testament of Hope, p. 219.

9. Nichiren, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1 (Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999), p. 279.

10. King, “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” in A Testament of Hope, p. 222.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. On September 20, 2008, the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge, Mass., held its fifth annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue to explore how fearlessly facing death can produce significant personal and social benefits. Titled “Living with Mortality: How Our Experiences With Death Change Us,” the forum featured distinguished speakers Pam Kircher, Anthony Marsella, Megan Laverty, and Vincent Harding.

14. Daisaku Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first-Century Civilization” in A New Humanism: The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda (London and New York: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010), pp. 165–75.

16. In Buddhism, Nichiren divides life’s “treasures” into three categories: treasures of the storehouse, treasures of the body, and treasures of the heart. He wrote: "More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all. Strive to accumulate the treasures of the heart!" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 1170).

17. King, “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech” in A Testament of Hope, p. 225.

18. Ibid.

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