When singers and actors including Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster assembled in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, they undoubtedly knew they were part of an historic event, but they might not have realized how far-reaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would become.
More than 250,000 people assembled 52 years ago for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, and DreamWorks Studios executive Marvin Levy was there. He told Variety this week, “It was so memorable — you knew you were a part of something special and historic.”
Levy was working for the New York-based PR firm Blowitz, Thomas & Canton, which helped coordinate the participation of stars from both coasts. Harry Belafonte read a statement saying that people in the entertainment industry vowed to do everything possible “to bring the evils of discrimination to an end.”
The next day’s Variety rattled off the amazing list of performers, including Jackson, Dylan, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Odetta and Peter, Paul & Mary. Aside from Belafonte, Lancaster and Horne, speakers included Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Bobby Darin and Dick Gregory. Among the marchers: Poitier, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Gregory Peck, Rita Moreno, Joseph Mankiewicz, Tony Curtis, Diahann Carroll, Lorraine Hansberry, Sammy Davis Jr., Sam Peckinpah, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando.
The three broadcast networks pooled their footage, with 28 cameras recording the march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Lincoln Monument. Variety said the network action was unprecedented, but so was the event: At that point, the only thing similar in D.C. had been the Bonus March of 1932, when veterans demanded payment of the bonus money that Congress had promised them for their service during WWI.
At the 1963 march, many D.C. locals stayed inside their houses, fearing mass violence, since “there had been all sorts of dire predictions of possible dangers,” according to Variety. As it turns out, it was peaceful, with zero arrests.
Reporter Mike Mosettig said the day “mixed a holiday atmosphere with a serious purpose, and a group of more than 50 showbiz folks contributed to both modes.”
Levy said the reps of the entertainment industry met at New York’s La Guardia Airport that morning and flew to D.C. He was impressed that the group of “world-famous people were carrying their own bags, with no entourage, no representatives.” He said they eschewed their usual travel procedures because “it was something we all passionately believed in.”
King was the climax of the long day, preceded by the other speakers and performers at both the Memorial and Monument. His electrifying speech set the stage for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But, in fact, the speech was so electrifying that others attempted to use it. Four months later, Judge Inzer B. Wyatt in New York Federal Court ruled that the “I Have a Dream” speech was the property of Rev. King and not in the public domain. On Dec. 18, 1963, Variety reported that the decision put an injunction on albums issued by 20th Century-Fox Records and the Mr. Maestro label, which used the speech. “Rev. King’s suit against 20th and Mr. Maestro was based on his feeling that their exploitation of the ‘March on Washington’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech diverted funds from the civil rights movement.”
As Levy sums up, “I feel very lucky to have been a part of that day.”
Pictured: Marlon Brando and James Baldwin, surrounded by Charlton Heston, left, and Harry Belafonte.