Crowds surround the reflecting pool (photo right) with the Washington Monument in the background during the “National Action to Realize the Dream” march on Aug. 24 in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.’s National Mall vibrated with energy on Aug. 24 as tens of thousands of people from across the U.S. gathered to celebrate the “National Action to Realize the Dream,” the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
NASW members and staff were among those who attended the march, and some of them also were at the original march 50 years ago.
“Because of its involvement in the original march on Washington, it was important for NASW to have a presence at the 50th anniversary,” said Mel Wilson, manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights. “We had a good turnout — as many as 75 social workers from across the country, some (from) as far as California, showed up.”
NASW’s significant presence was in keeping with its many years of committed support of civil rights, Wilson said, adding that former NASW President Whitney M. Young — the head of the Urban League in 1963 — was one of the major organizers for the first march on Washington. Another social worker, Dorothy I. Height, also played a significant role in organizing the first march, as she was then president of the National Council of Negro Women.
Kurt Reichert, who was NASW president in 1963, firmly believed in civil rights, and he made sure all aspects of the organization became committed to support the cause during the first march.
“The battle for civil rights became NASW’s number one priority during my presidency,” Reichert said in a statement at the celebration of NASW’s 50th anniversary in 2005, one year before he died. “Social work generally, and NASW in particular, had been responsive to civil rights for many years, ahead of other professions.”
This year, the Lincoln Memorial served as the platform for speakers to address the cheering crowds, just as it did in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea, walk toward the Lincoln Memorial during the anniversary march. The Rev. Al Sharpton is in front of King. Both men were speakers at the event.
Key speakers included King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King Jr. III; the Rev. Al Sharpton; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who is the sole surviving speaker from the first march.
“Five decades ago, my father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood upon this hallowed spot,” King said. “So I stand here today in this sacred place — I am humbled by the heavy hand of history. ... I, like you, continue to feel his presence.”
A look back
NASW member Carol Goldbaum was a student at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1963, and did not know the march on Washington would inspire her to become a social worker.
She said her family was nervous for her to participate in the march. Convening for civil rights was a scary concept back then, Goldbaum said, and it was hard to predict what would happen in such a large crowd.
“They had no idea whether there would be a riot from people or police, and D.C. is hardly in the North,” she said. But the day was lovely and sunny, the crowds were energized, and there was a strong sense of optimism.
“Everyone was there because we needed to be there,” Goldbaum said. “There was such a sense of camaraderie and good will. Being there and hearing the many wonderful speeches and songs, and just the energy of all those people inspired me to come back to Northwestern and do something about the state of affairs in our country and in Evanston (Ill.).”
Like Goldbaum, NASW member Larry Lee attended both the original march and the Aug. 24 anniversary event.
He said he remembers an extraordinary sense of peacefulness at the 1963 march, despite the overwhelming crowds.
Lee, who is executive director of the New York Asian Women’s Center in Manhattan, said there was a sort of breaking point in the nation at that time that was the motivating force behind the organization of the first march.
“I remember as a youngster facing separate water fountains for ‘white’ and ‘coloreds,’ and as an Asian not knowing where I fit in,” he said. “In the 1963 march, what it meant was a hope that things would change, hope for a new order, a new world and nation.”
The atmosphere was electric then, and there was a tremendous sense of purpose, said NASW member Freda Friedman, who attended both marches as well.
“The sense of unity and community at the first march really helped break down barriers of differences between people,” she said. “They were singing and marching and holding hands, and there was a vibrancy that really brought people together from all walks of life. It was incredibly powerful.”
NASW members Carol Goldbaum, left, and Freda Friedman (photo right) participated in both the 1963 and 2013 marches in Washington
Then and now
There have been extraordinary changes since the first march, Lee said, and those changes are apparent across the U.S.
“The country has changed, we now have a black president, and there’s a capacity for people of different ethnicities to rise and become friends and to be very close, which in the past was very limited,” he said.
Despite this, he said, the atmosphere at the anniversary march — although energizing — held a different feel from the first, and there was a sense of promises not yet met.
“The nation has grown up a little more jaded and feeling we haven’t reached what we should have reached by now,” Lee said.
Friedman said she noticed several separate platforms at the anniversary march committed to various issues, which, while inspiring, lacked the larger sense of community that prevailed in 1963.
“Fifty years ago, there was much more a sense of hope that things could really change,” she said. “Since then we have developed a lot of cynicism of what can happen, and if change occurs it can also backslide.”
There has been a fair amount of progress in 50 years, Goldbaum said, and clearly a stronger and more committed middle class among the black community — and much less segregation. However, there have been a lot of missteps, she said, and too many disappointments for the anniversary march to have the kind of upbeat feel the first march had.
“We all felt we were really turning a corner then, and yes we turned a big corner, but we have to go around so many more corners to get really energized again,” she said.
But she did see more of a sense of determination at the anniversary march, compared with the optimistic outlook at the first.
“I wouldn’t characterize either march as better or worse, but just different,” she said. “And the sense of commitment and purpose to be there was just as strong now as it was then.”
The next 50 years
NASW’s Wilson said the anniversary was of historical importance for the association because of its heavy involvement in the original march. But this year’s event also coincided with two highly significant civil rights issues, he added: the Supreme Court overturning a section of the Voting Rights Act, and the high-profile, racially charged Trayvon Martin case in Florida.
“It was important for us as an organization to be present at the anniversary because social work is a key component in the issue of civil rights,” Wilson said.
All you need to do is look at the principles of social work, Goldbaum said, and social justice is very near the top.
“I didn’t even know what social work was 50 years ago when I went to the first march,” she said. “But the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a major influence on me. What got me to grad school to study is my belief in the importance of a just society. Making sure that people have adequate ability to survive in this world is right up there.”
Lee (photo right) said having social workers as national leaders can help bring more national equality to the U.S., and a deeper sense of social justice overall.
“We haven’t had big social work thinkers in bringing the nation together in a while,” he said. “It’s something we really need to have to see major change.”
To successfully help people improve their quality of life, social workers need to know what they can do individually, and realize the constraints society imposes, Friedman said.
“Our work as social workers is to be aware of what those constraints are and work to support change,” she said. “For the next 50 years, I hope there are more equal opportunities for every minority group; much more of a sense of hopefulness in the younger generation; and much more of a sense and need to collaborate and work together to identify problems and come up with solutions.”
But there are still a lot of things that need to change in terms of fairness, Lee said.
“We have to work towards an education system that gives fair opportunity to everybody, equal opportunities for jobs and the ability for us to be together and trust each other,” he said. “It may be a never-ending quest, and in 50 years we’ll still be saying the same thing. Everyone always strives for the same thing, but the disparity is still so great now.”
However, this is a beginning, Wilson said, and participating in the 50th anniversary march is a continuation of NASW’s commitment to furthering civil and human rights.
“We were happy to be a part of the larger groups of organizations and individuals who came out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington,” he said.
Observations from the 1963 March on Washington
- The fee to use the public bathettes at Union Station was suspended for the day in celebration of the event. (Jack Hansan)
- The sound quality was poor, so people climbed the trees lining the National Mall to try to hear the speakers better. The trees have grown a lot in 50 years — too hard to climb now. (Larry Lee)
- The weather was almost the same for the original march and the anniversary event on Aug. 24: sunny and not too humid, which is rare for August in D.C. (Carol Goldbaum)
- For every two speakers at the original march, there was a different singer. The music completely united the crowd. (Goldbaum)
To see video clips from this year’s anniversary march, visit the NASW YouTube channel.
Pioneer Jack Hansan talks to NPR about 1963 march
Jack Hansan (photo left) points to a poster recently at the NASW national office about the 1963 March on Washington. Hansan’s ticket stub (photo right) for the train ride to the march is shown.
When NASW Social Work Pioneer® Jack Hansan arrived in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, he said he knew change was in the air when the men’s public bathroom attendant at Union Station refused to let anyone pay the 25 cent entry fee for a bathette.
“ ‘It’s on me’ ” Hansan remembers the attendant saying. “That’s when I really knew this march on Washington was a big, big deal.”
In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, NPR recently interviewed Hansan about his participation in the original march.
He helped organize a group of about 500 fellow NASW members, Cincinnati businessmen and other civic activists, and they all boarded a chartered overnight train and traveled the distance from Ohio to D.C.
Hansan remembers talking with colleagues and other train passengers throughout the night — all of them dressed professionally with ties despite the travel and summer weather.
“We rode two nights on a train, one up and one back. There was no club car, but it was fun,” he said to NPR. “We were all dressed politely, like we were going to an office — shirts and ties.”
Hansan’s wife, Ethel Hansan, and their four sons did not go with him to the 1963 march, but he made sure to send them a postcard on that day, which he still has.
Hansan founded the website the Social Welfare History Project, where his memories and mementos from the original march can be found.