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D.C. Congresswoman Reflects on Her Efforts Organizing the March on Washington

August 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Decades before delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton would represent her district as a congresswoman on Capitol Hill, she worked as one of the original organizers for the March on Washington. Fifty years later, Holmes Norton reflects with Gwen Ifill on her efforts, part of a series of discussions on the legacy of August 28, 1963.
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GWEN IFILL: A week from today, three U.S. presidents and thousands more will gather in the nation’s capital to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

We continue our look back over the decades tonight with the words of one of the student volunteers from that day, Miki Conn from Upstate New York, who at the time was attending Howard University.

MIKI CONN, March on Washington participant: The March on Washington took place when I was 18, my first summer at Howard.

I found out through the Nonviolent Action Group, NAG, that a March on Washington was being organized and that there was an office there that needed volunteers. In addition to learning how to do a mailing, I learned that it wasn’t solely about that day, that it was about what comes after.

What the March on Washington showed me is that there are always others who have the same interests, the same concerns, and that if you can get them together to think about it and plan about it, you can make changes.

GWEN IFILL: That was Miki Conn from Upstate New York. She’s one of many whose firsthand accounts appear in the new Web series Memories of the March produced by public television stations around the country for the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

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Now we turn to the second in our own series of conversations about the march.

I spoke yesterday with Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., who in 1963 worked as one of the event’s original organizers.

Congresswoman Norton, thank you so much for joining us.

In 1963, you were what they call a worker bee, someone behind the scenes actually putting that March together. How did you get involved?

DELEGATE ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON, D-D.C.: Well, I suppose I was even lower than a working bee.

There were a lot of students who went Mississippi for the first part of the summer knowing that there was lots of talk about the March on Washington, not knowing if it would ever come to be. But Mississippi was the last of the states where there had been no demonstrations.

They had swept through the South, but not Mississippi. Halfway through the summer, I got a call saying it’s going to happen, Eleanor. And Bayard is going to do it. He says, come on up if you want to work on the staff. Now, Bayard is…

GWEN IFILL: Bayard Rustin.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Bayard Rustin, in my judgment, the only man in the United States who could have organized that march.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: There were a set of skills that we had no reason to have so nurtured.

There had never been a mass march on Washington that anyone could find. There had been all kind of marches, veterans of this — but not a real mass march. What did it take to organize such a march, with no experience, no precedent to draw from?

GWEN IFILL: No social media, no flash mobs to be gathered.

(LAUGHTER)

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Exactly, with only telephones and the usual old-fashioned 20th century means of communication.

Well, first, it took organization. It took someone. And I think Bayard put all of it in one package in one person. He had been a pacifist, refusing the draft in World War II and even engaged in civil disobedience in Leavenworth when the blacks and the whites were separated.

He had been on a freedom ride in the ’40s. He had been close to the labor movement and knew how to organize things. And he had been mentored by A. Philip Randolph, the only man in the United States who had organized anything nationally.  And, of course, that was the Sleeping Car Porters.

GWEN IFILL: I find it so interesting that when people think back on the march, they think in a monolithic, almost a kind of sepia-toned way, but in fact very different kinds of people put together.

Here you were many things, a black woman, a law student, which many people hadn’t seen that combination. Here was Bayard Rustin, an out gay man, who the movement wasn’t real happy about, let alone other people. How do all those things come together? There must have been friction.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: There wasn’t, until Strom Thurmond decided to take to the floor of the Senate to try to out a man who had never hidden his homosexuality.

To the credit of the so-called big six — and those were the major civil rights organizations — they gathered around him. And that was it. This was a Southerner’s way of trying to somehow derail the march. Particularly by that point, it just couldn’t have been done.

GWEN IFILL: How about the stature of women in the movement? I know you were a worker bee. You were behind the scenes. But when you look in front of the scenes of who was on that platform, there was discussion about how few women there were.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: But not at the time.

GWEN IFILL: Really?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Pre-feminism.

(LAUGHTER)

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Today, of course, it would have gone up in smoke. Why wasn’t Dorothy Height a speaker at the march?

She was the leader of the broadest coalition of African-American women in the country. Who was to speak was the widow of Medgar Evers. She didn’t make it to the march, so that there were no women speaking. And yet women had been very important in the movement.

But, interestingly, you will not be able to think of a woman who was, except for Dorothy Height, considered a leader of the movement. And that, I think, explains it. Although African-Americans have been much more open to leadership of women, they weren’t far that far advanced than the rest of the society. And feminism as we know it didn’t become real until the late 1960s.

GWEN IFILL: You had a unique point of view, because you were — of your lowly status, you were the person who had to stay behind in New York and lock up the office. So you got to actually see the march a different way.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I did.

At the last staff meeting, Bayard said, somebody’s got to stay in this branch, on this four-story brownstone at what was 135th and Lenox all night, because you know somebody’s going to call and say, how do you get there?

So I raised my hand, native Washingtonian me, knowing that, first, I would get to go on a plane.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Not on a bus.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Not on a bus.

And that view in the morning, I don’t remember the exact time, but it was much too early for the march to have started. It was not too early to see great globs of people gathered, not on the Mall, but in an area, a staging area.

And, as people tired of waiting, because the civil rights leaders had gone into the White House, they just started marching. It was as if we came here to march. I don’t know where you all are.

GWEN IFILL: The leaders had to run to catch up with the crowd.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: They said, oh, boy, are we supposed to be leaders of this march or not?

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: The other interesting thing to me about this march is that people think of the ’60s and they think of Woodstock. It wasn’t a rally. It wasn’t a you-all-come kind of march.

There were manuals that said what we demand. There were demands.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: This is so important.

First, the march was going to be — I remember a staff meeting — the march for freedom. I believe it was Bayard who insisted, wait a minute, what is the content of that? It became a march for jobs and freedom.

Now, don’t think jobs in the same way we do today. In fact, the economy was pretty good. It was about an equal job.

GWEN IFILL: So, it wasn’t about integration; it was about economic equality?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Yes.

It was about a time when, if you were and I went to get a job of any kind, but particularly a job of the kind we weren’t supposed to be coming to, straight out, they would say, I’m sorry, Gwen Ifill, we don’t hire blacks here.

That was North, South, East, and West. So it was about even the most menial jobs in the first — once the EEOC — and this was the agency I myself was to lead 15 years later, something I could not have imagined — the first cases were brought for the lowest kind of jobs in factories in the South, where you had to have no skills, but you had to take an I.Q. test in order to get the job.

So that’s the kind of discrimination. It was naked. It was bald and it was all about race.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty years later, the march is now this iconic memory. Have we come as far as we could have come in that time?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: No, but so much further than we were.

Race — the South has changed in part because some of those people aren’t with us anymore, and new generations have come forward, partly because many people changed their views. It is not respectable today to be a racist. It was perfectly all right in 1963.

No president today, like Kennedy, who was a friend of the march, a friend of African-Americans at least, would fear the march the way the administration feared the march. Now, remember, we had been engaged in a nonviolent movement, taking all kinds of blows.

So the violence wasn’t going to come to us. In fact, there were no guns. There were police who could only come without guns. If there was going to be violence, it was going to be people coming in from someplace else. But we didn’t think, with all these people coming from all over the country, they would be coming.

But, Gwen, coming from all over the country, were they really going to come from all over the country? Young and foolish me thought, look, I have been on the phone a lot with buses and trains. I think they’re coming.

GWEN IFILL: But is it possible — would it be possible to replicate that today, given all we have accomplished? A lot of people think we’re fine now.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Certainly not in the startling numbers.

And one of the things that makes a straight line between the march and the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the first enforceable civil rights legislation since the Civil War, is that it was startling to see so many people come. And I remember standing at the Lincoln Memorial looking out.

Many people recall — and, of course, I went down to see what looking up would mean. Look, looking out what was the sight for me, because I could not see the last person on the Mall. Now that mold has set the pattern for marches that are held on every conceivable subject today.

It broke open the notion that mass movements couldn’t happen. And, remember, we’re talking ’63. We have just come out of the ’50s, which were the most complacent of decades, and when you had McCarthyism. So, you really had the dawning of a new era with the March on Washington.

GWEN IFILL: But here you are today, a sitting member of Congress, a former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as you mentioned. Is this anything you could have envisioned there standing there that day?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Certainly not being a member of Congress, because the district had no member of Congress. It didn’t even have home rule.

And isn’t it interesting that this time the district will try to draw the attention to the fact that the march is being held in the city that is least empowered? And the notion of being a federal official seemed farfetched, especially if you came out of the movement. First, you thought that might mean selling out.

So, the whole notion of being a member of Congress, when there were a handful, maybe a half-dozen, if that, wasn’t on our list. Our list was, are black people going to be able to go in, whether New York or Alabama, to say, I have been to high school, I have been to college, I want a job?

It was very rudimentary. That has occurred. A whole new set of issues crop up. And movements are about adapting to the new set of issues, adapting to the fact that the Voting Rights Act must be revised, or it will be useless, adapting to the fact that Trayvon Martin, a kid, was murdered, and that there are still stand your ground laws on the books, which are a clear and present danger to every black man in the United States.

Do we have a movement that is capable of growing to embrace these new issues? That, I think, will be the question on August 28, 2013.

GWEN IFILL: Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman, thank so much.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Always a pleasure, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: We will share more of our 50th anniversary conversations next week.

On Monday, I talk with an activist who marched and with his son, now an elected state lawmaker, about how the march has reverberated across generations.