Seasonal Reflection: The March on Washington, 1963

Roy Gasnick, OFM Features

The following reflection was written by a former HNP communications director about his experience at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. This week, the nation is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic event that attracted a quarter of a million people to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate together. The friar — a New Jersey native who was 29 in the summer of 1963 — describes what he felt while listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech. 

My heart, my mind, my very Franciscan Christian Catholic soul told me that I had to be in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, to march with Martin Luther King Jr., together with the expected 100,000 or so other Americans demanding racial justice and equality for black Americans in the United States of America.

I was teaching at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., at the time but was also heavily involved in a new movement in the Third Order of St. Francis called “Action for Interracial Understanding,” whichhad its roots at Holy Name College, Washington,  and that grew in Third Order fraternities at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, two fraternities at St. Bonaventure University and one just starting up in the Chicago area.

I got to Washington the day before the march, staying overnight at the old Holy Name College in Washington. I found out that two other friars from our Province were coming to Washington to join the march, but were not staying at Holy Name College and no one seemed to know their names.

The next day, I drove down seeking a parking space as close to the Washington Monument as I could get. The monument was the designated starting point for the march.

Large, Peaceful Crowds
As I walked onto the National Mall, one glance at the sheer numbers of the crowd shocked me. It turned out to be about 250,000 people, the largest demonstration ever mounted anywhere in the U.S. I had never seen so many and so many kinds of people in one place at the same time. Then I felt it: the electrifying atmosphere surrounding me, the thousands of human stories, the excitement, the overwhelming sense of history in the making and, over all, the fact that I would be part of it.

When I got my equilibrium back, I studied the crowd and was somewhat startled by what I saw. The ratio of blacks to whites was about 10 to one. Almost everyone was dressed in their so-called Sunday best clothes — men with shirts, ties and suit coats, women with dresses and dress hats. It certainly was not a crowd prepared for a riot. There were as many white Catholic priests, brothers and sisters in their clericals or habits as there were their Protestant equivalents, carrying protest and demonstration signs.

And there was food! Food brought by black families, black individuals and small-time black food concessionaires from the local area. No one asked for remuneration; everything I saw was freely given. I was on the mall no more than five minutes when an elderly black man with an engaging smile came over to me offering a bottle of Coca Cola. He made a comment about how hot I must be wearing that black suit. We struck up a conversation about the march and what we expected. Others joined us, blacks and whites. King was already working his “magic.”

A Nonviolent Demonstration
During the preceding weeks, predictions from J. Edgar Hoover, political pundits and news media grew darker and more ominous: the marchers as a crowd would be unmanageable, King would lose control, the thousands of marchers would turn into mobs rampaging the nation’s capital, destroying monuments, breaking into storefronts, burning buildings, attacking the police and the National Guard, leaving dead bodies strewn on the streets.

But there was no violence. As I stood in the middle of the National Mall with other peaceful demonstrators, it was obvious to me that Hoover and the other prophets of doom were wrong. The March on Washington was turning out to be a gigantic church picnic with a mighty crowd of 250,000 people, a mighty hymn in “We Shall Overcome” and a mighty sermon in “I Have a Dream.”

It led me to reflect that just as Christ had fed more than 5,000 people from two fish and three loaves of bread at the nearby Sea of Galilee so had this Christian crowd of 250,000 fed each by sharing the foods they had brought to the march. Those marchers seemed to know their Gospel. And they also knew that after all the beatings, the attacks by trained southern police dogs, the powerful jet fire hoses, the police clubs, and the arrests, how humane and neighborly sharing food could be in putting hearts to rest.

The march itself was not really a march. It was a slow walk. Moving 250,000 people from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was no small feat, especially since they had to maneuver that mass of people around the wide and long reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The group in my area was guided to walk along Constitution Avenue. Though the distance of the march was short, we moved slowly, singing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” If there were to be any trouble, now would probably be the time. Then, while passing the first side street, I saw a band of vigilant police, some standing, some on horses and some in police cars. That scene repeated itself at every side street.

“I Have a Dream”
When my part of the march finally ended, I maneuvered my way to a spot under the trees on the end of the reflecting pool near the right side to the Lincoln Memorial. I had direct sight of the platform and could see the entertainers, speakers and, of course, King, but at that distance, they were all quite featureless.

But when King preached his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, I somehow knew that I was standing near the midst of the moral conscience of America. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. The Declaration of Independence was a promissory note declaring that all men were created equal, and that includes black men, King declared. “I have a dream,” he said with a mighty sigh, “that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream…”

Then it was over. I later found out that not one single arrest had been made. There were no riots, no disturbances, just an extraordinary crimeless day in Washington. Mostly everyone dispersed as quickly as I did, glad to find a place of rest after being on our feet all those hours on the National Mall.

Today, 50 years later, Action For Interracial Understanding exists only in the memories of a few friars and Secular Franciscans who saw it come to an end with the assassination of King and the rise of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement.

But King’s dream has blossomed. Most of the civil rights legislation for blacks for which he and I and 249,999 others marched has been achieved by either legislation or the ballot box.

Most amazing of all, there is Barack Obama, an African American, presiding in the Oval Office of the White House as president of the United States.

— Fr. Roy, a resident of St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a former HNP communications director. Fr. Roy is pictured in the image behind the photo above with King and Ralph Fenton, OFS, during the presentation of the St. Francis Peace Medal in 1963. King was the recipient of the medal that year.

The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting a reflection for consideration for a future issue of HNP Todayshould contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at