The showbiz spin is amusing some 50 years later; a bit astonishing considering that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” didn’t get a mention.
But a contingent of industry figures did play a significant role in the march, reflecting an emerging brand of Hollywood activism: More visible and more vocal, more willing not just to be seen but to have something to say.
The 50 or so actors and performers who attended — Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Lena Horne, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll to name a few — were “partly responsible for bringing a relaxed and peaceful ‘county fair’ mood to the huge demonstration,” as Variety’s Mike Mosettig, then just 21 years old, wrote. But Mosettig, now a producer for PBS, also noted that Harry Belafonte, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, read a statement from the show biz that warned of “artistic sterility” if all Americans aren’t given freedom and discrimination didn’t come to an end. Without that, Belafonte read, “growth of the artist is seriously menaced.”
The famous names who marched helped frame the event as different from the civil rights protests up to then that had created a national movement. Belafonte, ho organized the cultural figures to attend, recalled in a recent interview for the CNN documentary “We Were There: The March on Washington — An Oral History,” “One of the things I said in my conversations with the Kennedys in discussing why they should be more yielding in support of a demonstration was the fact that there would be such a presence of high profile artists and that alone would put anxiety to rest. People would be looking at the occasion in a far more festive way.”
He was right, but authorities were not convinced, and even actively worked against the success of the march. Garner, in his autobiography, said that the FBI called each celebrity one by one the night before, warning them to stay away, “saying they couldn’t guarantee our safety.”
There also was disagreement among the show biz contingent on exactly what they should do and say once they got there. Before they left Los Angeles on a chartered plane, Garner wrote, then Screen Actors Guild president Heston presided over a planning meeting where Brando held up a cattle prod that had been used against demonstrators in Gadsden, Alabama.
“Marlon wanted us to chain ourselves to the Lincoln Memorial,” Garner wrote. “Chuck didn’t like that. He said we should play by the rules and threatened to bail out of the march if we did any ‘militant’ stuff. Marlon shut up and we did it Chuck’s way.”
The lack of militancy did not mean that the show biz crowd was meek. As Variety noted, when Horne was introduced at an initial gathering at the Washington Monument, she yelled “Freedom!” In a prelude to protest anthems to come, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed, joining a lineup that included Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. Anderson, who in 1939 sang “My Country, Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was to sing the National Anthem, but was delayed, and instead sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Jackson sang three spirituals, including “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.”
Josephine Baker “disavowed for one day her pledge never to return to the U.S. and flew in from Paris,” Variety reported. Wearing a blue uniform of the free French, she praised the racially mixed crowd for being “together as salt and pepper just as you should be. You are a unified people at last.” Dick Gregory quipped to the estimated 200,000 gathered, “The last time I saw this many of us, Bull Connor was doing all the talking.”
As trivial as the news may have been, box office in D.C. was dismal that day. But there were worries that business would slow elsewhere in the South for movies featuring some of the participants — but the fears were unfounded. It was a testament to the success of the march, peaceful and powerful in nationalizing the movement. Almost a month after the march, Variety reported that in New Orleans, “New Kind of Love” starring Newman did not suffer, and Burt Lancaster, Brando and Heston “remain ‘boxoffice’ despite their political gesture.” That their participation was viewed as not as a moral crusade but a “political gesture” shows the divisiveness of the times. An exhibitor in Atlanta groused that it was a “rare thing” to get the stars out to promote their movies, but “when they see a chance to get some adverse publicity, they hit the road in droves.”
Many of the performers who marched that day went on to even more vocal gestures of protest, whether it be the Vietnam war or American Indian rights or party politics. Heston became a conservative, but even his rhetoric became more militant. As president of the National Rifle Assn., he frequently used the phrase, “from my cold dead hands,” to emphasize his right to gun ownership.
“I Have a Dream” did get mention in Variety, in December of 1963, when King filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox’s record label and won an injunction preventing the studio from selling an album that included the speech. Like that of any of the showbiz figures who entertained that day, King believed that his own performance of one of the most famous speeches in American history deserved the protection of copyright.
Update: The Documentary Channel posted footage of a roundtable discussion that James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Poitier did on the day of the march with David Schoenbrun of CBS News.