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W&L Historian Reflects on March on Washington (Audio)

As a 20-year-old African-American growing up in the South, Ted DeLaney has clear memories of the March on Washington as a time when tears of joy replaced, at least momentarily, the tears of despair that were more common during the tumultuous year of 1963.

Fifty years later, DeLaney is professor of history at Washington and Lee University, where he teaches about the civil rights era, including a course on the Freedom Rides.

When he considers the 50th anniversary of the march (Aug. 28), DeLaney said that he can’t help but think of those major figures who were instrumental in the movement and the march who are no longer alive, including, of course, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream Speech” to a crowd of 250,000 on the National Mall and to millions via television.

“The march was a triumphal time that helped the nation think about and reflect upon the problems of civil rights,” DeLaney said. “The march became a highlight of that year — if there was a time during 1963 that seemed sensible among all the turmoil, it was that moment in Washington when people seemed to come together to dream about and talk about equality.”

All in all, though, DeLaney remembers 1963 as a nightmare, with violent clashes between demonstrators and police, the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls in Sunday school, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

King’s speech was, DeLaney said, “the essence of the march” even though it was not as substantive, in his view, as another of King’s works.

“In my judgment, the most important thing Dr. King ever wrote was not the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ but his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ That is magnificent prose but also has real substance,” DeLaney said.

“The Washington speech is a cheerleading kind of speech where you’re saying things to excite the listeners,” DeLaney said. “The last part seems to resonate through the last 50 years — this whole ‘I have a dream,’ which seems to be so American. The country is founded on this idea that you can dream the impossible. In this case, though, the dream was of fairness and of equality and of those natural-rights principles on which the country was founded.”

DeLaney said that the most important thing that happened on that day is that white Americans around the country saw on television an event that was very different from the images that they had been accustomed to seeing as representative of the civil rights movement. Rather than seeing the demonstrators meet with violent resistance, viewers saw a march that was peaceful and prayerful.

In addition, he said, there was a clear presence of non-blacks in the event. Though that had been true in marches in the South, it wasn’t always as apparent as, say, having folk singers like Peter, Paul and Mary taking a prominent role.

“The message was that there was more to the movement than just black insistence on a change in how we do things in the United States,” DeLaney said. “I think that’s extremely important. A lot of times both black people and white people forget about the white presence, particularly the Southern whites who took a very strong stand.”

DeLaney thinks that events of recent years demonstrate that Americans’ patience for fixing the problem of equality is short lived. Pointing to recent voting-rights issues and to racial divisions that were clear in the Trayvon Martin case, in Florida, DeLaney said he believes that “we still have a great deal of work to do, and I’m not sure it will be easily resolved in the near future.”

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