I heard about the march during the planning stage, as a field secretary of SNCC. I was working for the summer of '63 in bloody Danville, Va.
I decided to attend because I thought it would be a good way to sum up all the suffering and brave work SNCC and the other organizations and individuals had been doing since the pace of civil rights agitation picked up following the Feb. 1, 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, NC.
I traveled with my new bride, Dorothy Miller Zellner. We were married in Atlanta on Aug. 9th, a day or so after I got out of jail in Danville. For our honeymoon we drove to Mobile, Alabama to visit my family and then to California to see movement friends, and then to Corning, New York for a speaking engagement, and then to NY City to visit Dottie's folks, and then to D.C. for the march on Washington, and then to Atlanta to pick up our few personal belongs, and then to Boston where Dottie would run the New England SNCC office on Harvard campus, and I would begin a two year study of sociology at Brandeis University.
My expectations were that the march would be a militant challenge to a foot dragging government an angry, yet jubilant wake up alarm to the nation that black America and its allies were demanding jobs, justice, and freedom from a backward, vicious South and a genteel racist North that continued to allow the Civil War to remain unfinished.
My fondest memory was not of the dream speech, though that was memorable, but the image of the SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and NAACP kids, mostly SNCC, joining hands in a huge circle just below the speakers stand, and singing our hearts to the heights. The "event" itself had been controlled with a heavy hand and even what singing there was Mahalia Jackson, the freedom singers, etc was doled out sparingly so as not to incite the "mob." Breaking the rules by singing was our feeble attempt to protest the forced changing of our Chairman John Lewis's speech because it was too fiery and militant. That was yet another playing out of the difference between the young people in SNCC and MLK, "de lawd", as we sometimes irreverently referred him, although we loved him.
It surprised me that some of the moderates demanded a change in John's speech and that the leadership went along with it. Another surprise was when Ms Jackson leaded over and said to MLK, "tell them about the dream, Martin." He did and it saved the speech and the day and the rest is history, somewhat sanitized.
The impact the march had on me was that it provided dramatic proof that the sometimes quiet and always dangerous work we did in the deep South had had a profound national impact. The spectacle of a quarter of a million supporters and activist gave me an assurance that the work I was in the process of dedicating my life to was worth doing.
It is hard to enumerate the changes the last fourty years have witnessed. Formal and de jure segregation is dead for the moment. White supremacy and racism has learned to be more effective and less visible. White privilege can be maintained without the overt trappings of apartheid. Class can replace race as the great divide and "respectable" people are free to advocate and enable massive upward distribution of wealth without being seen as sexist, racist, or any of those other to be avoided labels.
The forces that constituted the target of the March those forty years ago are still in power and MLK is now an emasculated saint of sweetness and light and "nonviolence." Those who have elevated him and now sing his praises, did not sing his praises when he was preparing a radical poor people march on Washington, and opposing the war in Vietnam. And it goes without saying that our non-elected President and his family retainers have not adopted nonviolence as their weapon of choice in Afghanistan and the new world order of continuous war where the terrorists replace the worn out old red bear.