#276) The March (1964)
Directed by James Blue
Class of 2008
As is usually the case with my write-ups of historical events, this post is a massive oversimplification of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and is not the be-all and end-all on the subject. There’s a lot of information out there about the march, and you should check it all out. Educate yourself!
August 28th, 1963: American citizens and organizations take to the streets of Washington D.C. to peacefully protest the lack of civil rights for African-Americans; an event coinciding with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Starting at the Washington Monument, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is attended by over a quarter of a million Americans, some holding pre-approved signage calling for unity and an end to Jim Crow, and many singing such protest songs as “We Shall Overcome”. Appropriately enough, the march ends at the Lincoln Memorial, with speeches by such civil rights leaders as Roy Wilkins and John Lewis, and performances from Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. But the main event is when Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. takes the podium and delivers his instantly iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The march is a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and, while not without its detractors (Malcolm X called it a “farce”), would eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Documentarian James Blue was commissioned by the United States Information Agency to cover the march and create a film to be viewed by various government agencies. The result is a streamlined version of the day’s events, but the hope of the marchers comes across, as does the overall feeling of history in the making. Watching this march 55 years later, obvious parallels can be made to the protests of recent years, and this film gives me the cautious optimism that peaceful protests can still be successfully orchestrated by concerned citizens. Any footage of the March on Washington is deserving of preservation, and “The March” is a succinct film that gives you healthy sample of what that day was like.
Everybody Gets One: I admit to not knowing anything about James Blue prior to researching this post, but it turns out the University of Oregon has all the information you want on the man. Although “March” is his only NFR entry, Blue was a prolific documentarian and his 1968 film “A Few Notes on Our Food Problem” (another USIA commission) was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.
- If the United States Information Agency sounds familiar, you may remember them from my write-up of “Czechoslovakia 1968”. With rare exceptions, USIA films were not meant for public viewing, until a congressional act passed in 1990 allowed them to be viewed after 12 years.
- Kudos to the restoration team; this film looks amazing. Of all the documentaries I’ve covered so far, “The March” has easily the cleanest print.
- I understand that it was still summer, but it seems weird to hold the pivotal moment of the Civil Rights movement on a Wednesday.
- Among the notable attendees of the march (though not appearing in “The March”): Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Dick Gregory, Marlon Brando, Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis, Lena Horne, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, and James Baldwin (who was controversially not allowed to give a speech). Side note: Keep an eye out for Bob Dylan in the crowd while Joan Baez is performing.
- At age 23, Civil Rights leader and future Congressman John Lewis was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial. His speech was preemptively edited by march organizers to remove anything that may be perceived as antagonistic, including a line calling President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill “too little, too late”. Lewis is still going strong and fighting the good fight representing Georgia’s 5th
- If you watch “The March” on the US National Archives YouTube page, you’ll notice something very weird: “I Have a Dream” is completely muted. Closed Captioning gives the disclaimer “The audio has been redacted due to a copyright restriction from Dr. King’s family.” Turns out that after a legal dispute with CBS, the audio of the “I Have a Dream” speech is the copyright of the King estate, and this YouTube upload either couldn’t or wouldn’t get clearance. Definitely tarnishes the viewing experience.
- For the curious, here’s the full “I Have a Dream” speech (“The March” cuts it down to about six minutes). I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said: it’s one of the most important speeches in world history, and if nothing else, Dr. King knew how to work a room. The actual dream part of the speech wasn’t originally included, making that section History’s Greatest Ad-Lib.
- You know who the real hero is? Whoever decided that no one should follow Martin Luther King. There were closing remarks by March organizer A. Philip Randolph, but King was the last speaker. Good call, everyone.
- According to the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the march, despite fears from White America that there would be violence and riots, only three arrests were made that day, none of them African-Americans.
- To reiterate, I am deeply under-qualified to talk about any of this, and a 1000 word blog post can only scratch the surface. There are countless websites that chronicle the March on Washington, but I’ll always recommend any video or audio you can find from that day. Words can paint a picture, but the recordings are a powerful way to revisit the march and to truly see how far we’ve come and still have to go.
Listen to This: There are a lot of recordings that go along with the Civil Rights movement, and several of them have made their way onto the National Recording Registry. First and foremost is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is embedded above. There’s also Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome”, a song heard frequently throughout “The March”. And last but far from least is Marian Anderson’s recording of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. While the NRR selection is her 1936 rendition, Anderson reprised the song for the March on Washington.