USA Today, August 19, 2013
Chicago historian and civil rights activist Timuel Black still recalls the "fantastic enthusiasm" young people had organizing in the days and weeks before the March on Washington in 1963.
Inspired by the charisma of Martin Luther King, by then a world-renowned figure, hundreds of people in Chicago worked under Black's direction to make the march a reality.
They knocked on doors, made calls, answered phones and sought coverage from local newspapers and radio stations. They secured the support of Catholic and Protestant churches.
"The enthusiasm was fueled by the personality of Dr. King. And with the (violent) conditions of the Birmingham protests in Alabama that spring, that enthusiasm was ignited," Black said.
Black, now 94, said his experience in a segregated U.S. Army during World War II inspired a lifetime of civil rights activism. He went on to lead a variety of civil rights organizations in the 1960s, including the founding Chicago chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He became a lead organizer in Chicago for the march through his position as president of the local Negro American Labor Council chapter.
It's often forgotten that unions played a key role making the March on Washington a success, said Steven Pitts, a specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.
A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), first pushed for a March on Washington in 1941. He led efforts to organize the march more than two decades later. "We tend to focus a lot on the dramatic battles of the South, but we miss the less-dramatic battles in the North with workers," Pitts said.
Southern conflicts focused more on broad societal segregation, while battles in the desegregated North focused on discrimination in housing, employment and in schools, Pitts said. Unions fought for equal rights in the workforce.
Union interest in civil rights extended to the march, which was officially dubbed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The United Auto Workers provided much of the funding for the event, and the BSCP ensured transportation for many of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people who attended the Aug. 28, 1963, gathering in Washington, D.C, Black said.
"The unions provided the initial money necessary to do this ground organizing," Black said. "It was a natural fit for them; they had experience organizing politically and economically."
Black said he recalls legendary Chicago journalist Studs Terkel conducting interviews on the train as it rumbled toward Washington. Those interviews can be heard today at the Chicago History Museum.
A crowd of angry whites concerned the march would cause a riot met the estimated 2,000 Chicagoans at the train station in Washington, D.C., Black said. But a group of black supporters, including King and Randolph, had arrived early at the station to ensure safe passage to the National Mall, where the march was to take place.
"On our way, we were just jubilant," Black said. "Mr. Randolph and Dr. King had met us at the train station. We walked to the site together."
After King gave his legendary speech, "I Have A Dream," Black said he and everyone around him hugged and cried for joy. "We returned to the train and returned to Chicago — jubilantly," Black said.
Upon their arrival home, one last surprise awaited them. The Chicago Sun-Times had run an editorial critical of the march that carried the headline, "Now that the March is Over," according to an Aug. 29, 1963, article from United Press International.
Tempers flared, and 200 to 300 people, mostly college-aged, made for the newspaper building to protest. They ignored Black, who urged them to go home.
"If these young people get off and start a protest, they may be confronted," Black said, recalling his fears. "Knowing them the way I know them, they would fight back and get hurt."
However, no one was injured. In fact, 11 protesters were invited to the building's fourth floor to meet with the newspaper's leaders, according to the article.
Looking back, the March on Washington and the protest outside the Sun-Times building represented a turning point in the civil rights movement, Black said: From that point on, the movement was not primarily about raising awareness. It was about seeking change through the political system.
Black said he saw that shift across the country, from Chicago to Atlanta.
"We created a theme in Chicago: 'We must protest, we must protest, we must protest at the polls.'" Black said.