August 28, 2013 9:56:57 AM
Fifty years ago today, a quarter-million people converged on the national mall in Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event provided a seminal moment in America's civil rights movement.
That march, culminated by Martin Luther King Jr. and his "I Have a Dream" speech, was widely reported, even in the South where the message was not embraced by the white-dominated power structure and the status-quo conservatism of its white population.
A review of the archives of The Commercial Dispatch shows the newspaper carried front-page wire stories on the event for three consecutive days, beginning the day before the Aug. 28, 1963, event and ending with coverage of the event in the Aug. 29 edition. While the March on Washington was front-page news, it was clearly not considered the big story of the day in any of the three editions of The Dispatch.
On Aug. 27, the eve of the march, the "big stories" in The Dispatch were a story that said the Columbus Separate School District was eligible for federal aid and a story about the Democratic Primary run-off for governor between Paul B. Johnson and J.P. Coleman.
Coverage of the march in the Aug. 29 edition, which could have been expected to provide the most complete account of the event, was confined to a modest story under the headline, "March More Akin to Revivalist Camp Meet." The story estimated the crowd at 200,000 and reported organizers hailed the event as the "greatest civil rights march in U.S. history." The story noted President John F. Kennedy had been impressed with the "deep fervor and quiet dignity" of the gathering. Interestingly, there was no mention of King or his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is now recognized, along with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as one of the most memorable of speeches in the nation's history.
That omission, which seems inconceivable today, was not confined to Southern newspapers. The Washington Post, despite writing two dozen stories on the event, also failed to recognize the historical significance of the speech. The words "I have a dream" appeared in only one Post story, on Page 15 -- in the fifth paragraph.
If news coverage were an indicator of significance, it would seem the March on Washington would have quietly slipped from public consciousness.
While the civil rights movement did not begin on that late August afternoon 50 years ago, the event proved to have a transformative effect on Americans, black and white.
It serves, too, as a reminder that in the immediate aftermath of an event, it is often hard to define its importance.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address evoked a tepid response by those in attendance, but the power of his message ultimately defined the struggle in moral terms that re-energized the fight against slavery.
By contrast, events that were predicted to be monumental moments in our history -- The Million Man March, The Newtown Tragedy, perhaps even the Trayvon Martin killing -- seem to have come and gone with few tangible results.
In each of these cases, journalists and pundits report and offer commentary on the facts. What is often harder to recognize at the time is the immeasurable power of an event. Is it a moment of passion that quickly fades? Or does it endure, lodged in the hearts of minds of the masses?
On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we realize there was something about the event, particularly in King's speech, that touched the American conscience like no other event in the civil rights struggle had touched it to that point.
The March on Washington represented a pivotal moment in our nation's history. It endures and enlightens, even today.
1. Voice of the people: Roger Wade LETTERS TO THE EDITOR (VOICE@CDISPATCH.COM)
2. Voice of the people: Jeff Turnage LETTERS TO THE EDITOR (VOICE@CDISPATCH.COM)
3. Voice of the people: Berry Hinds LETTERS TO THE EDITOR (VOICE@CDISPATCH.COM)
4. Leonard Pitts: A speech for history NATIONAL COLUMNS
5. Our View: State flag is bad for Mississippi's brand DISPATCH EDITORIALS