50 Years: The March on Washington 1963-2013

Tonight, in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, U.S. State Department is preparing to live stream The March, a 1964 documentary by James Blue about the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. Preceding the film will be a short introduction by John Robinson, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of State and following the film individuals are welcome to stay for a virtual discussion with Washington, DC-based civil rights experts who will answer participants questions and comments submitted online throughout the program. Please follow the link to participate in this global viewing party: https://conx.state.gov/event/global-viewing-party-the-march/

Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Collection JFK-164: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 - 2011, National Archives

Planned March Route, Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 – 2011, National Archives

The March on Washington and James Blue’s documentary – The March

From early  June of 1963, with the formation of the coalition Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, to August 27, 1963 uncertainties plagued the minds of civil rights leaders across America. The “Big Six” had come together in June, determined to mobilize the people for a March on Washington. They had spent months clarifying the goals of the March, finding volunteers, organizing transportation, and publicizing the event. The “Big Six” faced down the threats of the Klu Klux Klan, the potential for police brutality, the lack of political support in Washington D.C., and the skepticism of the President of the United States John F. Kennedy.

Yet the biggest question that the “Big Six” could not answer was, “Will they come?”

On the morning of August 28th, 1963 the answer was apparent. While organizers had planned for anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 participants, the buses, trains, and endless streams of cars entering D.C. betrayed a much larger turnout. “Almost a continuous line of buses on the expressway,” police said. By 8:00 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. [March, p. 184-186]

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source:  Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 - 2003, National Archives

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives

In total, over 250,000 people rallied together under the ringing voices of celebrities, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King as he exhorted “let freedom ring.”

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

Yet, despite the overwhelming success of the March on Washington and the outpouring of support for civil and human rights, the political wheels moved more slowly. At the end of the rally, President Kennedy invited the march leaders to the White House to discuss the pending civil rights bills, where some leaders pushed for strengthening portions of the bill. President Kennedy was cordial and non-committal in his support. As the weeks passed the civil rights legislation seemed to be stalling and the momentum and optimism inspired by the March began to fade.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

It would take another 2 years before both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were passed.

During the political stalemate in the United States – with an uncertain ambivalence in the air over the future of civil rights – a much different message was being promoted to foreign countries. As part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), films were produced as part of a desire to attract support and cooperation for American policies in foreign countries, part of a soft power movement relying on covert propaganda. As part of the USIA’s film series, the documentary The March, chronicling the March on Washington, was produced by James Blue and released overseas in 1964.

James Blue, documentary filmmaker

James Blue, documentary filmmaker, Source: Glasstire

Despite the US government’s reluctance to lend its support in the lead up to the March and the political tepidity following August 28, 1963, James Blue’s 1964 documentary The March, presents a much more unified front in support of the civil rights movements. Carl T. Rowan, the Director of the United States Information Agency states in his introduction to the film, “Ladies and Gentleman…I have the privilege to present to you a dramatic document of man’s continuing search for dignity. It is a film about the great civil rights march at Washington. A moving exercise of one of the most cherished rights in the free society, the right of peaceful protest. I believe that this demonstration of both whites and negroes supported by the federal government and by both President Johnson and the late President Kennedy, is a profound example of the procedures unfettered men use to broaden the horizons of freedom and deepening the meaning of personal liberty.”

The film captures the buses rolling into Washington, sandwiches being made for the thousands of participants, performances along the Reflecting Pool, blacks and whites using the same water fountain, and other images meant to capture the cohesive racial equality that occurred in Washington on August 28, 1963.

Interestingly, The March was never seen by the American public. Due to concerns about the repercussions or effects of the U.S. Government using propaganda on its own people, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act mandated that no USIA film could be shown within the U.S without a special act from Congress.

It was only with a Congressional Act in 1990 that films such as James Blue’s The March were authorized to be screened domestically.

Now, with the help of the National Archives, the American public is not only able to witness imagery from one of the largest political rallies for civil right in the history of the United States but also the ways in which the United States government portrayed The March on Washington abroad for its own purposes.

If you are interested in learning more about the making of The March, please visit the following link (http://blogs.archives.gov/mediamatters/2013/08/20/making-the-march/) to a blog post by Criss Kovac, supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives. As part of a larger project to digitally restore The March, Criss Kovac provides a detailed and thought-provoking post on James Blue’s film-making process and the ensuing controversy within the USIA over the final film, its message, content, and release.

To learn more about the recent digital restoration of The March conducted by the National Archives, one can also follow the link (http://blogs.archives.gov/mediamatters/2013/08/22/preservationrestorationthemarch/) to learn more about the process, from the arrival of the damaged reels to the laboratory to the compilation of the repaired frames.

For those in Washington D.C., the first screening of the National Archives digital restoration of James Blue’s The March will be held at noon, August 26th, in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building.  Additional screenings will be held at noon on August 27th and 28th as well. For those unable to attend in person the film will also be available on the National Archive’s YouTube channel beginning August 26th.

~Ardea Smith

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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