PBS doc ‘The March’ details the build up to history

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom turns 50 today.

A new PBS documentary reveals the details of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described would be considered the “greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history.

Narrated by Oscar-winning actor Denzel WashingtonThe March dedicates the majority of the 55 minute running time to the build-up of the momentous event.

Some 250,000 people gathered in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, to raise awareness of the poor economic realities of African-Americans and to demand the passage of strong civil rights legislation.

Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University, was just 19 when he attended the march.

“Every time I think back, I draw different meanings from it because of my subsequent experiences,” Carson told theGrio.com. “At the time I would not have fully understood the significance of what Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.” 

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Carson, whose commentary is featured in The March, is also the director of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He says America does not have a good track record when it comes to understanding what King stood for.

“The main thing we’ve gotten right is that he deserves a national holiday,” Carson said. “He was the most prominent figure in one of the most important movements in American history.”

But Carson, who traveled from Indianapolis by bus to attend the march, said aspects of King’s speech and overall vision remain largely misunderstood by the general public.

“What [Dr. King] said is that this country was conceived in this ideal of universal human rights, ” Carson said. “But we haven’t lived up to that ideal. And that’s not a message that many Americans, even now, want to hear.”

Carson, along with other scholars and march attendees provide sharp commentary  for the PBS doc. The March also includes interviews with organizers such as Joyce Ladner.

Ladner was 19 and entering her senior year at Tougaloo College in 1963. 

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Ladner worked under the march’s chief organizer Bayard Rustin. She told theGrio.com there was “about a dozen” or so workers at the march’s headquarters in Harlem. 

“We had about six to eight weeks to get it all done,” Ladner said of the time crunch. “We worked 16 hour days, sometimes. Often, we wouldn’t stop before midnight.”

Ladner worked the phones and traveled throughout the New York metropolitan area, speaking to groups in an effort to raise money for people from the South to attend the March.

She spoke to churches, synagogues and labor unions. A Mississippi native, Ladner said the story of struggle was an “easy sell” to supporters because lived the horrors she described she lived through.

And to her, that is the real story of this fiftieth anniversary – keeping things in proper perspective.

“Remind people of how hard things were,” Ladner insists. “[Of] how many people were murdered, [of] how many people were fired from their jobs because they tried to register to vote. That’s the story.”

In addition to first person accounts, The March explores stories of some of the march’s controversial moments:

  • The censoring of John Lewis’ speech
  • The government’s fear of widespread violence by march participants
  • The improvisation of Dr. King’s speech

The March premiered Tuesday as part of a series of events and content related to the March on Washington from PBS.

Follow theGrio.com’s correspondent Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj