It may be just a slow panning shot in a short documentary film, a left-to-right sweep across tens of thousands of Americans, but it still sends a frisson of memory into the heart. The image, set on the National Mall lawn at the base of the Washington Monument, recalls a magisterial moment in our nation’s history. Behind the crowd, a caravan of chartered buses carries thousands more, from every state in the U.S., toward this iconic obelisk. Along both sides of the long, shallow reflecting pool, down to the Lincoln Memorial, almost one-quarter of a million of them will soon gather for a peaceful assembly, known in the annals of American history as the March on Washington. Over this, Joan Baez sings a mantra of that time, “We Shall Overcome.” The date is Aug. 28, 1963.
Fifty-seven years later, for the hundreds of thousands marching on the streets of dozens of American cities today, the cri de coeur is not this spine-tingling civil-rights anthem sung by Baez, nor the plaintive choruses of Odetta Holmes or Marian Anderson sung in front of Lincoln’s statue, but the choked gasp coming from the dying lungs of an African-American man: “I can’t breathe.”
Director James Blue’s The March, a 33-minute record of this landmark event in American history, was released in late 1963 by the U.S. Information Agency, intended more for international audiences than domestic consumption. Photographed by seven camera-and-sound teams over three days on almost 60,000' of 35mm film, the film was restored in 2008 and entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry that same year. The March is simply but movingly narrated by the director.
Much can be said even now out of impassioned nostalgia by the generation of marchers and protestors who were part of that time. But that was then, and this is …
… a different time, and the powerful urgency of new chants rising up from the streets (rather than historic hymns from the choirs of black churches) has never been clearer. A doddering cabal of the compliant: legislators who are old not just in body but in heart and soul, shuffles through the halls of Congress with desperately unturned heads. Avoiding reporters’ fiery questions, this fearful herd is inexplicably in thrall to a tone-deaf leader incapable of uttering the name of the man who died under the knee of a rogue cop.
In the climactic 6½ minutes of Blue’s film, from 23:15 to 29:45, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is muted, broken only by a few seconds of applause between his sentences. In its posting of the film, the National Archives notes, “The audio has been redacted due to a copyright restriction by Dr. King’s family.” It’s such a sad statement that the keystone moments of this iconic documentary are compromised. Why? What benefit to anyone’s notion of family as “keeper of the flame” can there be in this gesture? King’s estate won a lawsuit against CBS, and as a result, his speech will remain under copyright until 2038, 70 years after his murder. However, you can read and hear his full remarks in a segment National Public Radio created to celebrate his birthday in 2010. It lets us recall, in these divisive days of tweeting and texting, how great language can inspire and unify us.
Blue’s montage of thousands of foot soldiers moving toward the Lincoln Memorial dramatizes this granular and celebratory moment in our nation’s history. In the fog of time, it also evokes the battles soon to come — not just from Southern segregationists, but also from a more militant faction of the Civil-Rights movement embodied by a quote from Malcolm X: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionaries swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I have a dream’ speeches?”
We can only pray that the summer now upon us will not see such racial polarization.
Our perspective today can subsume both the Christian idealism of King and the Old Testament rhetoric of Malcolm X. This collective demand for lasting, substantive change in American race relations does not appear to be yet another short-lived rhetorical flourish. At the end of The March, the great labor unionist and Civil-Rights leader A. Philip Randolph says, “I think history as written today will have its effect on coming generations.”
As Hamlet said in his famous soliloquy, referenced here in a brighter context, “ ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Here is The March: