So when an estimated 250,000 descended on the nation's capital, "Washington was terrified," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin.
Anxiety in the nation's capital
"One of the reasons the March on Washington has such a sunny reputation in history is because there was such a sharp contrast — people were so relieved compared with what they expected. Official Washington was terrified of this march. They tried to stop it. They canceled liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition. They canceled elective surgery in all the hospitals, they stockpiled plasma. ... Life magazine said the capital had the worst case of pre-invasion jitters since before the first Battle of Bull Run before the Civil War."
Don't mention the march
"A lot of people were reluctant to share their true feelings about it. They knew it went deep, but it was a risk to talk about it. It was a period in time when people got sweaty palms if they were in any mixed room. Not just because they were afraid of the police or of the Klan, but because everybody's parents were involved in businesses and you never knew. ... People were hiding and crouched in a lot of psychological corners."
Where Branch was during the march
"I was at football camp in South Georgia. I was a high school student. And I had just resolved to myself that when I got really secure and old, maybe 30, that I might stick my toe in this scary thing called race relations that had plagued my whole formative years in segregationist Atlanta. I wanted to get involved and then I turn around and see little 6-year-old girls marching into dogs and fire hoses. It just stunned me. I said 'They're not waiting until they're 30 years old.' "
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are continuing to spend this hour talking about the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Later, we'll talk about some of the songs that brought cheer and inspiration to the marchers. First, though, we'd like to continue looking back at that important moment in history. Earlier today, we heard from Congressman John Lewis. We talked about his thoughts as he prepared to take the stage.
He was, as we said, the youngest major speaker that day. But we wanted to hear more about the atmosphere in the nation's capital and across the country during that time, so we've called Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. He's written many books about this time period, including a series of biographies on Martin Luther King Jr. called "The King Years," and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us this day.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Michel. Nice to be here.
MARTIN: Where were you on August 28, 1963?
BRANCH: I was at football camp in South Georgia. I was a high school student and I had just resolved to myself that when I got really secure and old, maybe 30, that I might stick my toe in this scary thing called race relations that had plagued my whole formative years in segregationist Atlanta. I wanted to get involved, and then I turn around and I see little six-year-old girls marching into dogs and fire hoses, and it just - it stunned me. I said, they're not waiting 'til they're 30 years old. And so I remember that as a seminal moment.
MARTIN: You know, to that, I know you talk about the violence that was loosed upon the demonstrators who had been participating in earlier marches, and that some of those people - if people have any awareness of that period at all, surely, you will have seen exactly what you're talking about.
Now from the standpoint of the demonstrators, the organizers always intended that the march be nonviolent. But one of the things you've written about is how much anxiety the Kennedy administration had about this march, and not just that, but just the city in general. Could you talk a little bit about some of the preparations that were made in anticipation or fear of what was going to happen?
BRANCH: One of the reasons that the March on Washington has such a sunny reputation in history is because there was such a sharp contrast with what - people were so relieved compared with what they expected. Official Washington was terrified of this march. They tried to stop it. They canceled liquor sales for the first time since prohibition.
They canceled elective surgery in all the hospitals. They stockpiled plasma. They thought they were going to be - the chief judge of the courts told all of his fellow judges to prepare for all-night bail hearings. This was a big deal. Life magazine said that the Capitol had the worst case of pre-invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run before the Civil War.
MARTIN: We've been talking to listeners over Twitter and Facebook and reaching out in various ways to get their memories. And we spoke to William Blackwell, a white preacher from Cincinnati who went to the march, and his congregation had mixed feelings about it. And some people in his congregation actually told him not to go. But he did have some support. Here's just a short clip from our conversation with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
WILLIAM BLACKWELL: I had another elderly man who he and I had issues before, and we weren't enemies or anything, but we weren't close friends either. And after we left the church that morning when I told him I was leaving, and he came over and he shook my hand and he said, I just want you to know, I'm proud of what you're doing. And when he walked away, there was a $20 bill in my hand, which was fortuitous because the train fare for that special train was $20 and I didn't have it.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. Does that capture something about the - maybe you can help me characterize it. What would you say was the overall attitude about it?
BRANCH: I think a lot of people were reluctant to share their true feelings about it. They knew that it went deep, but it was a risk to talk about it. It was a period in time when people got sweaty palms if they were in any mixed room, not just because they were afraid of the police or the Klan, but because everybody's parents were involved in businesses and you never knew when somebody - I had somebody say to me, don't come into that room with a black friend because my father's customers will hear about it and if he loses his business, it could be your fault.
It was a frightening time, but it was very subtle and insidious because nobody said, I'm mad, I'm a segregationist. Everybody said, it's not me, but it's my friends, it's my father's business, it's my church might get hurt. And so people were hiding and crouched in a lot of little psychological corners.
MARTIN: Talk, if you would, about one other thing that I learned from your reporting, which is that - the speech itself. You've written about how the most famous moments of that speech were actually improvised. And I want - or at least they weren't planned. Let me just play a clip of the speech leading up to, I have a dream. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Go back to Alabama. Go back to South Carolina. Go back to Georgia. Go back to Louisiana. Go back to the slums and ghettos in our northern cities knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
MARTIN: So then what happened?
BRANCH: You picked a very telling place to come in there. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair was the first improvised line. The sentence before was part of his written speech. The next sentence was the beginning of his conclusion, which was, and so let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. That was the beginning of his peroration and he couldn't make himself do it.
He had labored over it for days, and the rest of it was more or less in that vein. It was rational. It was stiff. It was white. And instead, he said, and so even though we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. And he launched this adlib - the first volley of three adlib refrains - I have a dream, with this faith and let freedom ring. Each of those refrains were refrains that he had worked into his speeches, like a jazz musician, in the previous six months.
MARTIN: Well, what happened? What do you think happened?
BRANCH: He's a gifted orator and he knew his speech wasn't going over. And this is the harder part. He knew it wasn't going over and he wanted to reach for something with rhythm, something that he knew could get an emotional response rather than a cerebral one, which is what the speech had been written for. He was nervous about the speech.
He switched from a speech of grievance to a speech of vision that was broader than black and white and certainly broader than grievance, and that was a risk. It was not Pollyannaish. "I Have a Dream," it was criticized for being Pollyannaish. Anybody can have a dream. But if you hear his voice, no one who hears his voice thinks that he thought it would be easy.
MARTIN: When we spoke with John Lewis earlier, one of the things that he remembered was that - when President Kennedy greeted the leaders of the march after it had concluded. He was congratulating each of the speakers and saying, good job, good job. But he said - John Lewis remembers that - the President Kennedy saying to Martin Luther King Jr., and you had a dream. And I wanted to ask, what do you want people to remember?
BRANCH: I want people to remember that tremendously good things came out of this era. We are out of phase with our history right now because we should be optimistic about our politics that we could tackle the most difficult problems going forward now. But instead, we're really trapped in a cynical age when we don't appreciate the blessings that we achieved by addressing the race issue the first time. You know, I always say that every parent of a daughter and every white Southerner stands on the shoulders of this movement because, as King said, the white South was imprisoned in segregation almost as badly as the victims of segregation. You never heard of the Sun Belt when it was segregated and the candidates down there were too stigmatized for national office, and it didn't even have professional sports teams.
MARTIN: And why the parent of a daughter?
BRANCH: Because if you have a daughter and she wants to go to Yale, she's not going to remember that white or black females could not go to Yale in 1963. Once the movement started, people really struggling with the fundamentals of what does democracy mean for equal opportunity and equal citizenship, if you can go through those gates and ask those questions for black and white, you can also ask for male and female, for disabled, for senior citizen, for all the other lines that divide us. And in that sense, it opened up a far wider field of inspiration.
MARTIN: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian Taylor Branch. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on this historic day. Taylor Branch, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BRANCH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.