“It’s difficult for someone these days, to understand what it was like, to suddenly have a ray of light in the dark. That’s really what it was like.” District of Columbia student Ken Howard regarding the 1963 March on Washington
On August 28,1963, over 250,000 gathered for what came to be known as the March on Washington. One of those people was District of Columbia student Ken Howard. In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, he recalled that the March “symbolized a rising up…of people who were saying enough is enough.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/oral-history-march-washington-180953863/
The website of the National Museum of American History provides information about the events of 1963 that led to the March on Washington. During that year, there was a rash of violence against those demonstrating for the civil rights of Black people seeking the right to vote, access to jobs and education, and integration in public accommodations. According to the U.S. Justice Department, over 978 demonstrations occurred in 1963 in 109 cities. During that year, there were over 2,000 arrests and four deaths, including the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. https://americanhistory.si.edu/changing-america-emancipation-proclamation-1863-and-march-washington-1963/1963/summer-1963-0.
In honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, plans were made for a mass demonstration in Washington, D.C. Civil rights organizations, as well as new community and student activists, were brought together for the event which was to be a march demanding jobs and freedom. In addition, they wished to promote the passage of the Civil Rights Act that President John F. Kennedy had just introduced. Kennedy worried the March might end in violence and, thus, harm the possibility of the Act’s ratification. He finally agreed to endorse the event with his brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy working to ensure the safety of those involved. There were still those who didn’t want the March to interfere with Congressional action on the Civil Rights Act. So it was decided the March would end at the Lincoln Memorial and not the Capitol. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington
Once at the Lincoln Memorial, the peaceful crowd of a quarter of a million heard ten men from civil rights, religious, and labor organizations. No women gave speeches, although actress, singer, and activist Josephine Baker spoke before the official start of the presentations. The last speaker was the most notable—Dr. Martin Luther King. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/king-speaks-to-march-on-washington
The demonstrators, who were Black and white, rich and poor, listened as Dr. King stood before the towering statue of Lincoln and gave what became known as his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s interesting to note that the famous line wasn’t actually part of King’s planned remarks. He was inspired to depart from his notes by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who called out to him, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” The “dream” theme had been part of several of his earlier speeches. King responded to Jackson by including his now-famous “I Have a Dream” portion of his speech. He told of his vision that the phrase from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” would finally become truth. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington
Many others were part of the official program. Singers performed throughout the event. They included Marian Anderson, Peter, Paul, & Mary, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Many celebrities were also featured, from Sidney Poitier and James Baldwin, to Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne.
Since 1963, the historical status of the March on Washington has grown. It is an early example of a mass rally conducted in Washington, D.C. to support a social movement. The March inspired future rallies on a variety of subjects such as antiwar protests and women’s rights demonstrations. In addition, the March propelled Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The part of the March with the most lasting memory to most people is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, now considered one of the greatest in American history.
Teaching Children About the March on Washington
It is important to teach children about history. Learning history can help children develop qualities like compassion and empathy, as well as develop a sense of identity and build connections to their community. See the Arcadia Publishing article found at https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/May-2016/5-Important-Reasons-to-Teach-Your-Kids-American-Hi#:~:text=1%201.%20Children%20appreciate%20history%20to%20a%20greater,history%20helps%20children%20build%20connections%20to%20their%20community.
Professors Janet E. Foster, Tonja L. Root, and Seungyoun Lee focus on the importance of teaching one aspect of American history – the civil rights movement. Their journal article, found at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1078765.pdf, states in part: “Through the learning about the significant events and people of the Civil Rights Movement, children will learn to appreciate the ordinary people who struggled to change the society, to use their voices to make the world a better place to live, to understand the importance of legislatures and policies in overcoming an uphill battle in the United States, to stand up for what they believe in, to consider diversity appreciably, to connect diverse cultures, and to realize the value of equality, justice, freedom, and democracy.”
The March on Washington was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement in particular, and American history in general. As such, its teaching to children should be encouraged. Many children’s books concerning the March are available to assist in this process. Children’s author Barbara Lowell writes about some of them on her website, https://barbaralowell.com/books-for-kids-march-on-washington/. A child’s reading any of these books could provide an excellent learning opportunity. They include:
· A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
· We March by Shane W. Evans
· The March on Washington: A Primary Source Exploration of the Pivotal Protest by Heather E. Schwartz
· Voices From the March on Washington by J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon
Writing about the March on Washington from a Child’s Point of View
The themes and issues of the March on Washington may be complex for some children to understand. Thus, presenting the March from a young person’s point of view may help children grasp these concepts.
If one is writing children’s nonfiction about the March, the inclusion of “primary sources” in the form of statements of young March participants is important. The website of the Library of Congress discusses teaching children through such primary sources. “Primary sources expose students to multiple perspectives on significant issues of the past and present. … Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.” https://www.loc.gov/programs/teachers/getting-started-with-primary-sources/
Young witnesses to history provide “primary sources” that present points of view (POV) young readers may better relate to their own lives. They illustrate observations and emotions that may have been their own if the reader had been part of the event. The following are examples of such primary sources from the POV of young participants in the historic event known as the March on Washington.
A young person who marched and spoke about this historic and life-changing experience was college student Nan Grogan Orrock. Her words show children emotions they, too, may have felt if they had been in the March.“You couldn’t help but get swept up in the feeling of the March. It was an incredible experience of this mass of humanity with one mind moving down the street. It was like being part of a glacier. You could feel the sense of collective will and effort in the air.” from Like a Mighty Stream: the March on Washington, August 28, 1963 by Patrik Henry Bass, published Running Press.
Fifteen-year-old marcher Ericka Jenkins recalled what she saw and how she felt that day. “I saw people laughing and listening and standing very close to one another, almost in an embrace. Children of every size, pregnant women, elderly people who seemed tired but happy to be there, clothing that made me know that they struggled to make it day to day, made me know they worked in farms or offices or even nearby for the government. I didn’t see teenagers alone; I saw groups of teenagers with teachers. White people [were] standing in wonder. Their eyes were open, they were listening. Openness and nothing on guard—I saw that in everybody. I was so happy to see that in the white people that they could listen and take in and respect and believe in the words of a black person. I had never seen anything like that.” from Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner, published by Beacon Press.
When including the March on Washington in a work of children’s fiction, authors may wish to include observations and emotions from the POV of their young characters. “Paper True,” an online source for writers, discussed this topic in the article, “How to Write a Novel from the POV of a Child.’ https://papertrue.medium.com/how-to-write-a-novel-from-the-pov-of-a-child-2d7a90bf471b. One suggestion to authors writing from a child’s perspective is to “Make the problems faced by adults the anchor of the story. When the narrator is a child, he is surrounded by adults who are dealing with adult problems and situations; their stories of loss and longing are the beating heart of the book. Make these stories the anchor of the book, and add an element that the child focuses on, which might be mundane but is the background of a deep-rooted issue, for example, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas [that deals with the holocaust].”
My novel Sarah Finn is written for middle grade/early teen readers. It is presented as a first person narrative through the point of view of its protagonist Cathryn, a biracial girl living in 1963 rural Oklahoma. As “Paper True” recommends, it is rooted in adult problems and situations regarding racism and the civil rights movement. Cathryn understands the importance of these adult matters since she, too, faces related challenges regarding her racial identity in the form of harassment from school bullies and ostracism from her racist grandfather. However, Cathryn is eleven years old. So, I must approach her retelling of historic events of 1963, as the March on Washington, from her child’s point of view.
Helly Douglas, a teacher and author, provides advice on “How to Write from a Child’s Point of View” found at https://prowritingaid.com/art/1570/writing-in-a-child%E2%80%99s-voice.aspx. She suggests to “get into the heads” of your youthful characters. “Children link new experiences to what they already know. Remove the wealth of knowledge you have and try to imagine how they might feel in a situation.” I tried to follow Douglas’ advice when writing about Cathryn’s witnessing the March on Washington as seen in the following excerpt from my book.
“It was late August. Daddy was working, but the rest of us were home because school hadn’t started yet. Momma turned on the TV, and we all sat in the living room to watch what was called the March on Washington. I could hardly believe what was on the screen. The most people I’d ever seen in one spot were standing together in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Miss Sarah said over 250,000 were gathered there to support the civil rights of all people.
We listened to lots of speeches about jobs and freedom. When it was finally time for Dr. King to talk, I got off the sofa and stood by the TV so I could hear every word. He told everyone he had a dream that all this violence would stop, and people would live in peace together and their skin color wouldn’t even matter.” from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor
Helly Douglas states, “Children are as different from each other as adults are. They focus on things that seem strange or insignificant to us. Avoid lumping them into familiar stereotypes and think about what makes them different. Each one needs a distinctive voice…”
In the case of my character Cathryn she focuses on the singers who performed at the March more than the speakers. This may seem a “strange or insignificant” fixation to adults, but not to Cathryn. Music is more a part of her young life than speeches, even those of great orators. While watching the March, she was especially taken with folk singer Joan Baez.
“When it was Miss Joan’s turn to come to the microphone with her guitar and sing “We Shall Overcome,” I was all ears. That is until William picked that moment to get up and start dancing in front of the TV. He might have been just antsy from sitting so long, but that was no reason to act a fool. Momma had to shush him three times. Only then could I hear Miss Joan as she sang, ‘We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace
We shall live in peace some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome one day.’
I don’t know why but I teared up when I heard her sing those words on Sarah Finn’s TV that day in August. I thought maybe there would be a day when everyone was treated equally and all this hatred would go away. Maybe we could really live in peace and overcome all the bad in life like Dr. King wanted. So far it wasn’t happening.
I thought about Pastor Walker’s sermon and living in the Holy Spirit. Maybe that was the way to find the “peace” Miss Joan sang about. And, through that “peace” maybe we could really “overcome” anything. But, if I’m being honest, I must admit I couldn’t always live in the spirit and find peace like Dr. King or Pope John. I didn’t think I could even be like the people at Dr. King’s marches who practiced “nonviolence” even when people were being pretty violent toward them.
As the final days of August raced past and another year at Boomer D. Brown was about to begin, I thought about trying to find the peace Miss Joan Baez sang about. It still hadn’t found its way ‘deep in my heart.’ Grandfather Tanner continued to live in the backroom of Sarah Finn’s house and while he was around, there was no way to believe I could overcome my feelings toward the ole coot.” from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor
For Cathryn, hearing Joan Baez sing about finding peace deep in your heart as a way to overcome problems was a revelation, just as the entire March was for many of the other young people who attended or watched the event. And like Ken Howard, she, too, found in the March on Washington “a ray of light in the dark” that symbolized a “rising up” again racism.
However, since Cathryn is a child, the “ray of light” she encountered from her POV comes from the impact of the lyrics of Joan Baez’s song. Cathryn focuses on its promise that with “peace” deep in your heart, anything can be “overcome.” She holds those words as a touchstone that will help her to overcome “the dark” of her resentment and anger toward the people who bully and ostracize her because she is different from them.
Writing about the March on Washington from a child’s point of view can be a more meaningful way to show children its importance in American history and its impact on the lives of its young participants and witnesses — and, perhaps, the lives of the children reading and learning about this historic event.
by PortiaLily Taylor
image: Photo of March on Washington from U.S. Information Agency, Press and Publications Service., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
NOTE: PortiaLily Taylor has completed her novel Sarah Finn which is now in the process of being professionally edited. Please register at RoseRockBooks.com to receive PortiaLily’s newsletter and hear when the novel is available for purchase.
1 thought on “The March on Washington through the Eyes of a Child”
Thanks again for another educational and thought provoking blog.