Let Freedom Ring

  • Kitty Kelley
  • Thomas Dunne Books
  • 176 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ronald Goldfarb
  • August 26, 2013

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Stanley Tretick's iconic images evoke powerful memories of this historic day.

August 28, 1963, was a hot Wednesday in Washington, D.C. About 300,000 people — black and white, ordinary people and celebrities alike — peacefully gathered in the nation’s capital to petition the Congress to assure equal rights for African American citizens to whom they had been systematically denied. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had urged President Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation outlawing segregation on January 1, 1963, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s order freeing over 3 million slaves. President Kennedy would be acting to provide their 19 million descendants the right to vote, travel and work, Rev. King implored. It had been nine years since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, but beatings and arrests of blacks were occurring regularly in other cities in the South.

Kennedy balked, fearing widespread riots. The president told civil rights leaders that he sympathized, but a big show on the streets of the capital wouldn’t help him with his practical job of getting a reactionary Congress to pass a civil rights bill. He feared violence, as well as defeat in the 1964 election.

King promised a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. He wasn’t asking permission, he was giving notice that he and others were coming. Both the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had been slow to join the civil rights struggle but were now doing so in meaningful ways, worried about the consequences.  But they did not resist the tide of events. It would happen, not in January, but in August.

Fears abounded. Military bases in the area were under high alert. The D.C. police and FBI would be on the streets. The National Guard trained 2,400 recruits to assist. There were altogether over 8,000 guardians of the peace on the streets. “Washington was virtually under martial law, and acting like a city soon to be under siege.”

Officials in charge were careful. The parade was limited to the area between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The assembling would be limited to a mid-week day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The federal government and many businesses were closed and employees were asked to stay home. Liquor stores and restaurants were closed. The Senators baseball game was postponed. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery so all beds would be available for riot-related emergencies. Jails were emptied to provide room for predicted arrests. Judges were on around-the-clock standby. The press feared violence, not from the marchers, but from vigilantes and extremists who in other cities had recently met protestors’ non-violence with violence and unlawful law enforcement.

As King had promised, the assembly was non-violent. The event was covered by international media (over 1,600 press passes were issued), including  the late Stanley Tretick, whose photos were found in a trunk many years later by his friend, Kitty Kelley, the Washington-based, best-selling biographer. Tretick had willed Kelley an old Marine Corps locker he used as a coffee table in his study, the publisher reports, and Kelley, always with a smart eye for a good book, discovered in it a treasure trove of Tretick’s unpublished photographs, including the events of August 28, 1963. Alongside Kelley’s essays describing the events of that day and excerpts from remarks by civil rights leaders, Tretick’s photos provide a historic record of an amazing day in Washington’s history.

I was there, having come from my office in the Justice Department to meet my wife and a few neighbors at a prearranged spot near the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd grew, including people of all races but predominantly African American. Twenty Senators and 130 Representatives were there, along with movie stars, civil rights leaders and other easily recognizable figures. People arrived from all over the world by car, train and plane, and marched with dignity to the Lincoln Memorial. Despite the hot and humid weather, they were well-dressed, many looking like they were going to church. Some of them marched in phalanxes, in horizontal lines with arms laced. They were orderly, quiet and earnest in aspect. Many swarmed around the reflecting pool in a field of humanity that ran all the way to the Washington Monument. Some stopped there to sit and plunge their feet into the cool water.

In later years, there would be other marches on Washington. My wife and her friends marched for the ERA. We and others were gassed on Dupont Circle protesting the Vietnam War. But we’ll always remember with a personal glow that day standing beside the Lincoln Memorial, listening to the greatest orator of his time, eloquently pleading for racial justice.  

The 34-year-old preacher from Atlanta, by then a citizen of the world, entered immortality that afternoon, speaking mellifluously and with eloquence words he’d written the night before. “…we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he thundered. “…a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Claiming that the time had come “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” he called for “the fierce urgency of now.” He claimed a brotherhood, and one was palpable in the racially mixed crowd.

In mid-speech King was interrupted by Mahalia Jackson who shouted: “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” referring to a speech he’d given earlier in Detroit. King departed from his prepared text at that point and segued into his immortal plea, “I have a dream,” that reverberates still in the hearts and minds of all decent people. The crowd roared. King’s mesmerizing words kept rolling, in glorious cadence, repeating the now famous words — “I have a dream.” John F. Kennedy, watching on TV in the White House, commented: “He’s damn good.”

As people left quietly at the end of the day, March organizers stayed behind to clean the grounds. The New York Times called the event “the most impressive assembly for a redress of grievances in America’s history.” The Washington Post reported that the assembly was a happy combination of prayer meeting, picnic and political rally, a crowd “united in a sense of brotherhood and common humanity.”

Many of the social injustices deplored that August day in Washington, D.C. have not yet been overcome. But August 28, 1963, was a sea change of American history in which all human beings can take pride. This book by Kelley and Tretick will touch people who were there, and inform those who weren’t.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C. attorney and author.  His website is www.ronaldgoldfarb.com.


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