From Irvington, NJ to the March on Washington, 1963: One man's story

Steve Raymen  and I were classmates at Irvington High School.  When we graduated  in 1962, he went on to Duke University.  Even in high school his political awareness was way above that of most of us, including me. Lucky for me, Steve and I  renewed our contact in the past 10 years or so, and he shared the history of his civil rights work in the 1960's. While I only watched and listened back then, Steve actually did!
When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Steve came to Washington with his granddaughter so that he could witness the great event that owed so much to the 1963 March on Washington, which he had attended as part of his civil rights work at Duke.
Steve did not return for the 50th anniversary of the March on Wednesday of this past week (August 28), but I emailed to let him know I was thinking of him.  He replied with a summary he had prepared for a Bill Moyers special years ago outlining his memories of that day and the role that the March played in his life.
Here it is-- Steve's personal history of his experiences on the day of the March on Washington, 1963:

The 1963 March on Washington:  Notes:
by Steve Raymen

I became active in civil rights work in early 1963, during my freshman year at Duke University. I had grown up in a nearly all-white community in New Jersey.  I believe in our high school graduation class of 1962 there was one student of color among 525 students.

My first activist effort in 1963 was to picket the local Sears store in Durham to protest its failure to hire local blacks.  I think it was during the first hour of picketing that a car with white persons stopped along the curb and the occupants threatened to kill us.  Likely not more than a minute later, we were approached by some black bystanders who assured us not to worry, that they would be watching and help protect us if need be.

Most of the classmates in my Duke dorm were from the South, mostly from North Carolina, and it was an awakening for me into the complexities of the civil rights issues in the South and the Jim Crow laws that were
part of everyday life there that quickly brought me to a greater awareness of the racial divide and the pervasive and glaring social inequities.  Duke was still a segregated private university my freshman year, only deciding to integrate in my sophomore year.

I first became aware of the plans to have the March on Washington perhaps four to six months before the event. I spent that summer of 1963 between my freshman and sophomore years working at the local can company [in northern New Jersey] to earn money for my first car. I also did some civil rights work around my home area of Irvington and Newark, New Jersey.  Civil rights actions were bubbling up throughout the country by then and the thought of gathering in Washington, D.C. was appealing.

Some of my friends were planning to drive down to D.C. for the March, so I joined them.  We left very early in the morning, sometime around 3 AM, driving down the New Jersey Parkway and Turnpike, through Delaware and Maryland into D.C.

We arrived in D.C. around 7 AM or so.  Prior to August 28th, especially during the last week, there had been many articles about the forthcoming March, a number of them expressing fears of riots and the like.  But all was very quiet on a hot and humid early morning in Washington, D.C.

We arrived sufficiently early at the Washington Monument that hardly anyone was there.  Among the few groups milling around at that time was George Lincoln Rockwell and his cohorts from the American Nazi Party.  One of my friends who journeyed down from Irvington with me --Herb Asher -- proceeded to get into an intense discussion with one of the Nazi members, although it was a verbal exchange only.  Rockwell inhaled on his pipe as his minions tried to stir things up verbally. I do not remember if it was the Capitol Police or some other security force, but there were law officers nearby.  But there was no need for any direct intervention.

As time moved on, more and more people began to gather. A platform had been set up at the base of one side of the Washington Monument and singers began to use it.  I remember that Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays from the singing group "The Weavers" were on the platform..  I think Ronnie Gilbert spoke a bit about her experiences over the years in activist causes.

To put the March in context, there was at that time the beginning of writings talking about the Old and New Left:  the Old Left were those who often were involved in activities from the 1930’s labor strikes through the McCarthy period era; the New Left were the students and new young activists who brought new blood to the activist movements.  In general, they were less dogmatic than the Old Left and found the Cold War taunts and efforts to label them as either Communist sympathizer or Communist as irrelevant if not outright humorous.

On the platform singing at one time were Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter,Paul and Mary, Odetta and Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays.  I do not ever remember that grouping all at one time on a stage before or since that occasion..  Dylan had just come out of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival touring with Joan Baez.  I had seen them together at a Baez concert in Asbury Park about a month earlier.  It was still a very young Dylan at his protest best in those days. His FREEWHEELING album had been released that year and ‘Blowing in the Wind” was getting lots of radio time in the Peter, Paul and Mary version.   Baez was the larger presence then, and she helped introduce Dylan to her audiences.

In the general milling around the Washington Monument during introductions and changes in performers, I encountered a young man wearing a Duke University T-shirt.  I introduced myself to Harry Boyte, who was planning to enroll at Duke that coming fall.  Little did we know then that we would become active participants in the Chapel Hill Freedom Movement of 1963-64, would spend time on the protest lines and spend time in jail together, once with 38 of us crammed into a 6-person cell overnight after a non-violent, civil disobedience protest.  Likewise, we did not know that one year later, also in August, we would be together again in St. Augustine, Florida, where SCLC and Dr. King committed themselves to integrating one of the most violent and Klan-dominated cities in the deep South.

Harry would become the head of the Duke University CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chapter his freshman year.  His father, Harry Boyte, Sr., was an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the time of the March, and Harry told me he had just come from dropping off to the press area a copy of the speech Dr. King was to deliver later that day.  There was no sense at that point in the March that Dr.
King's address would become immortalized as the “I Have a Dream” speech, although I believe the “I Have a Dream segment” of Dr. King’s address was extemporaneous and not part of the prepared text that Harry delivered to the press.  (I still have a copy of the The New York Times coverage of the March the next day with excerpts from each of the 13 speakers. In retrospect, it is interesting that no portion of the “I Have a Dream” segment was included in the Dr. King excerpts quoted by the Times the next day.)

Harry and I talked for awhile and eventually parted ways. The crowd was steadily growing near the platform area. Buses were coming from all points into the Mall area.  Many church  and community groups had rented them for the occasion and it was soon apparent that there was a very, very large gathering in the making.  Meanwhile, there were introductions of various groups that had walked or driven up from the South to be on hand.  There was special recognition for the groups from the deep South that were able to make it to the March, many traveling many days to be there for the occasion. I have some box camera snap shots that were taken around the stage that day, although they are very basic and not the best of resolutions.  My memory is vague about what time  the March actually began.  By then, the protest signs that are in evidence in photos of the March had been passed out and slowly the crowd began to move from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial on their own.

It was an exceedingly hot and humid day and it took its toll on some of the marchers.  A number passed out from the heat.  As I remember it, many of the whites were dressed more casually.  The African-Americans were for the most part more formally attired in dresses and suits. There was an air of the ceremonial and high purpose about the occasion.

For me, having worked with others in relative isolation doing some civil rights activities in the Durham area, it was inspiring to see so many people, black and white, marching together for a common cause.  I had never been in such a large group before that was addressing a social issue. The presence of so many groups from cities and towns that already had gained prominence because of civil rights struggles was impressive.  It brought a sense of gathered and common purpose and provided a visual and physical presence to the scope and depth of the civil rights movement.  I think it gave all of us who participated in the March an awareness of how much our small efforts were part of a much broader movement.  Victor Hugo had once said nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.  It was very much in that spirit that the March gave renewed energy and commitment to the struggles.

I have heard others say how the March and Dr. King’s speech were responsible for their “criminal” records in the ensuing few years.  That was true for me as well.  In the spirit of the times, when the light of national and international media assisted immensely in bringing to the larger public consciousness the inequities of existing laws and the racism of existing attitudes, the March united and helped define a Movement that would change America.