Library of Congress

Memories from history's wild imagination, 50 years later.

The word “orderly” must have carried so many coded meanings in 1963. It appears repeatedly, oddly, in so many of the headlines covering the March on Washington, 50 years ago this Wednesday, as if the real news that day were not the rising demand for equal rights, nor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of what such equality might look like, but the astounding fact that all-out rioting never took place.

Here, the hometown Washington Post summarizes the event the next morning:

Courtesy of the Newseum

The next day's New York Times went with an identical emphasis in its headline:

200,000 March for Civil Rights in Orderly Washington Rally; President Sees Gain for Negro

And the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

200,000 Stage Orderly March in Capital

The Chicago Tribune was more blunt, after the semi-colon:

200,000 Roar Plea for Negro Opportunity in Rights March on Washington; No Incidents

Memories of the march today invariably focus on this historic scene on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or remembrances of young activists in the crowd, some of whom have returned to Washington this week. We tend not to remember that the District of Columbia was preparing for a very different event that day: something on the order of Bull Connor's Birmingham multiplied by a thousand.

For all of the blacks who were bused into Washington that day, many whites who lived in the city left town. The District preemptively declared a state of emergency. On the day before the march, it ordered all liquor stores and bars to close. The Washington Senators canceled their baseball game against the Minnesota Twins. The federal government shrewdly permitted the march to take place on a weekday, to keep the size of the crowd down, and then it told government workers they could stay home from the office that day. Other businesses never opened. Local hospitals even canceled elective surgeries on the day of the march to be prepared in the event of rioting and widespread casualties.

The San Francisco Chronicle, covering the city's unease on the eve of the march, took Washington's temperature this way: "The deep concern of husbands and bosses for the safety of their wives and secretaries was expressed from one end of the city to the other.”

Now the difference seems stunning between our collective memory of the March on Washington, and what so many people in the city thought that day would bring.

The Washington Post, prepared to the hilt to cover an urban riot, was so caught off guard that one never took place that it hardly noticed King's "I Have Dream" speech at all. The Post's front-page story that day does not mention King once (it does, however, evoke the word "orderly" twice more, while remarking on the "courteous behavior" of the people who came to plea for equality).

This disconnect between actual history and history's wild imagination never occurred to me before this weekend. News stories commemorating the 50th anniversary always find the people who remember "I was there," not those who'd say, "I fled."

My mother, who was starting her senior year of high school in 1963 in suburban Washington, texted me on Saturday to ask if I was going to the National Mall that day. She said she had wanted to go to the march 50 years earlier, but her mother – my grandmother – would not let her. Too dangerous, she said.

The thought struck me as absurd in 2013. The March on Washington that I know – that everyone knows – from history books and PBS specials was a peaceful event, without so much as a hint of simmering violence. Sometimes, though, we do a poor job of remembering how history-making events were viewed by people in their own time, or on the day before history took place. The preface to the story, though, is usually pretty telling, too.

Top image: aerial photo from the March on Washington, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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