The March on Washington, Fifty Years Ago

OHMAR, an all-volunteer organization, is fortunate to have a new intern for the Fall 2020 semester! Michael Barnes joins us from Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ. One of his assignments, in keeping with OHMAR’s commitment to telling relevant stories that can help us make sense of the world we live in today, will be to research and author a series of blog posts for us. We hope you enjoy, and explore these pertinent projects in greater detail.  

Throughout its existence, the United States has prided itself on having freedoms very few countries possess around the world, such as freedom of speech. This allows Americans to express their concerns and protest openly if, say, they feel the country is heading towards the wrong direction, or that certain laws are wrong or unfair. Such freedoms allow Americans to pursue their goals and dreams without running the risk of losing those freedoms.

However, the United States has not always allowed all citizens to enjoy these freedoms equally, as recent social justice movements are reminding anyone who might have forgotten this. Black Americans (for example) have been fighting for the freedoms outlined in the Constitution for over two centuries. Even after 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery, segregationist laws continued to enforce white superiority over Black Americans and treat them as second class citizens.

Though there has always been activism, conditions started to really change around the 1960s when Black community leaders and their allies started going in large numbers to highly-publicized civil rights marches to protest Jim Crow laws and bring awareness to the unfairness and mistreatment of Black Americans. One of the most prominent civil rights activists was a minister from the South Baptist Church named Martin Luther King, Jr. As we all know, much of his campaigning for civil rights gained attention across the United States in the early 1960s. Perhaps no event is more famous than when he participated in and spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial. There, he spoke to over 300,000 Americans, and famously declared his “dream†for the United States of America. This was a highlight in a series of events that helped galvanize the nation towards support of civil rights. Increased public support in turn led to civil rights legislation being passed that guaranteed Black Americans freedom and equality under the law. Of course, work would remain to be done even after the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights legislation, but this was a huge step forward towards actual equality under the law.

In 2013, oral historian Kelly Navies and the DC Public Library formed the March on Washington Oral History Project to prepare for the 50th anniversary of the March. Navies began conducting interviews with people who had participated in the event. She was able to record six powerful interviews, the first of which was with Warren Hall. Hall was a Black National Guardsmen in Washington, DC, who was present at the March only because the Guard was called up to provide security. King’s voice and his words had a profound effect on Mr. Hall. (In his interview, Hall also discussed being present when former president John F. Kennedy was buried. He stated that he was quite saddened by the death of a man who he thought would bring great social reform in the United States.)

Another narrator in this project was a white ally named Paul Kuntzler. Kuntzler was a gay man who moved from Detroit to Washington, DC. Kuntzler went alone to the March and recalled being unsure if King’s movement believed in homosexual rights. However, like Hall, Kuntzler was moved by King’s famed “I have a dream†speech. Kuntzler now is part of the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance as their head speaker and organizer.

The March on Washington Project is readily accessible online via the DC Public Library’s online archive, DigDC. While the March generally looms large in American history, less is known about those who actually attended and what it meant to them as citizens and human beings. This project has begun to address that. Their hopes and dreams for a more just America echo of those many who still march today. View the project at