PBS’ ‘The March’ a history-packed hour


San Francisco Chronicle

It was organized in only a few weeks and lasted just 10 hours. The American president was only reluctantly on board with it, and many expected it to deteriorate into riots. But destiny was not to be denied on that hot August day: The 1963 March on Washington was, as the new PBS documentary The March concludes, “the event that changed American politics forever.”

The film lasts only an hour, but it easily proves its point about the lasting historical significance of the march, which drew 200,000 to 300,000 people — black and white — on Aug. 28, 1963.

It wasn’t just that there were that many people in attendance, or that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech for which he will be remembered for all time. It was that the march rescued the civil rights movement from losing its moment in history, author Taylor Branch says, by fulfilling A. Philip Randolph’s call to make civil rights a truly national cause.

Produced by Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, directed by John Akomfra and narrated by Denzel Washington, The March is not only a timely film document, it is also structured as the great drama that the march was. Throughout the hour, we are waiting for the grand finale, King’s speech. When it comes, you’ll be hard-pressed to hold back tears, not only because of the power of King’s words but because the filmmakers have prepped you to understand just a little of the great struggle that led to that moment.

The history of the African American struggle is, of course, far too complex to be contained in a single hour, so the filmmakers begin in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., considered the most segregated city in the nation. King’s attorney and adviser, Clarence B. Jones, calls it “Bomb-ingham” because of the number of unsolved bombings in the city. Andrew Young tells about a black teenage boy stopped while riding his bike by a gang of whites and castrated on the spot, and of a young black couple returning from getting their marriage license, who happened to brush by a local cop: the prospective bridegroom was pistol-whipped.

The face of segregation was Birmingham Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Conner. When images of Conner’s men turning fire hoses and setting attack dogs on black demonstrators hit national TV news, many Americans saw for the first time the level of brutality invested in preserving separatism in the South.

Nonetheless, the rights movement was treading water at the time. How could it be re-invigorated? How could it become effective in changing laws, hearts and minds?

To go forward, the movement turned to its past and one of its greatest leaders, Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Decades earlier, he’d been invited to the White House to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt to talk about his battle to end discriminatory hiring by U.S. military contractors.

At the time, Randolph called for a national march on Washington. It didn’t occur then, largely because FDR wasted no time signing an executive order banning discrimination in hiring by government contractors and establishing the fair employment practices committee.

Twenty-two years later, the civil rights movement revived Randolph’s call for a national march and the first organizing committee meeting was held July 1 at the apartment of Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protégé and a key figure in the rights movement.

Many wanted Rustin to head the organizing effort, but others opposed it because Rustin was a former member of a communist organization and openly gay. Randolph, the movement’s elder statesman, was named convener of the march and Rustin became his hands-on deputy.

The march had to be organized in just eight weeks. The goal was met, largely by volunteers working 18-hour days and by field organizer Norman Hill traveling the country to create local coalitions of civil rights groups.

Entertainer Harry Belafonte worked his industry, enlisting support from heavyweights like Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster. On the day of the march, studios all over Hollywood suspended production to allow their talent to head to Washington on chartered planes.

The film benefits from first-hand memories by participants like Congressman John Lewis, Joan Baez, Norman Hill, Belafonte, Julian Bond, Diahann Carroll, Andrew Young, newsman Roger Mudd, who covered the march as a fledging CBS reporter, and Rachelle Horowitz, the longtime Rustin aide who was the transportation organizer for the march.

We know about the march today largely through King’s speech. The PBS film gives us greater insight and perspective.

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