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The March on Washington at 50: What is its Relevance Today?

All photos courtesy Leonard Freed Estate

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people traveled in cars, trains, chartered buses and airplanes to the nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

To kick off our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the march, PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown recently posed a question to NewsHour regulars Michael Beschloss and Ellen Fitzpatrick, along with Kenneth Mack of Harvard Law School and George Chauncey of Yale University:

When you look back from this distance, what strikes you about [the March on Washington’s] relevance to today, the way it is remembered or not?

Fitzpatrick said the march served to remind the country about “the incredible power of individuals” who brought about “sweeping changes” after World War II. “That’s what brought down the edifice of segregation in this society. And it remains, I think, an incredibly inspiring moment in our history,” she said.

Mack countered that the importance of the march “is still being debated” today.

“You have to remember, just this year, the Supreme Court invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act, one of the cornerstones of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s,” he said. “In fact, a lot of people would read the March on Washington as being about a broader and deeper set of challenges that we haven’t yet overcome.”

Beschloss added that one key takeaway from the march is that presidents “are almost always all afraid of popular movements and demonstrations that come from the grassroots, even if they’re for things that they like.”

He said that President John Kennedy, who had been skeptical about the march in the days leading up to it — so much so that he decided not to attend — changed his mind while listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s words coming through his third-floor White House solarium window from the Lincoln Memorial that hot August day.

“[Kennedy] heard it, he knew how much this was going to help Civil Rights and he said to himself, ‘I was wrong, I really should have been there,'” said Beschloss.

Chauncey said that because the march was so inspirational to so many, it allowed civil rights leaders a platform upon which they could frame issues of justice, equality and freedom.

“And although the issues that all those movements have made have hardly been settled today, that movement, the black movement, and that march played such an important role in opening up a huge debate in American culture, which we’re still very much a part,” he said.

Tune in to the NewsHour Wednesday, Aug. 14, for our first broadcast segment on the march. Gwen Ifill will be joined by William Jones, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Ifill talks to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., about her role as a march volunteer, and what it was like working for the march’s openly gay chief organizer, Bayard Rustin.

Monday, Aug. 26, Ifill will get two generations’ perspectives on the anniversary. Civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers attended the march 50 years ago. His son, Bakari Sellers, is now a South Carolina state lawmaker running for lieutenant governor.

Tuesday, Aug. 27, historian Peniel Joseph and filmmaker Bonnie Boswell Hamilton will join Ifill in the studio to discuss the different factions within the civil rights movement, both before and after the March on Washington.

On Wednesday, Aug. 28, we’ll hear from Congressman John Lewis of Georgia — the youngest speaker at the March, and the only surviving speaker from that day. Gwen talks to him in his office on Capitol Hill, surrounded by memorabilia from the civil rights era.

Thursday, Aug. 29, we’ll take a look forward with author Taylor Branch and filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman, whose PBS Web series “The March@50” begins Aug. 26.

In addition, throughout the month of August, we will air taped interviews with people about their experiences with the March, collected by PBS stations around the country. More information about these short vignettes can be found here.

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