Long before she was the District’s Delegate to the United States Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was a Yale Law School student and key strategist for the 1963 March on Washington as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
In the weeks leading up to the legendary march, Norton was at the table in a New York City brownstone planning the event along with A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. and other key organizers of the event.
“We organized the march in a big brownstone in New York and one of my jobs was to get people on trains and buses to come. I was doing that to the last moment so I got to fly back to Washington while everybody else came on trains and buses,” Norton told the Informer.
Norton left New York so late on August 28, 1963, that March organizers purchased her a plane ticket to get back to D.C. to be on stage; and there were many unanswered questions.
“We just didn’t know how many people were coming. I was thinking around 25,000,” Norton said.
It was a good thing that Norton’s flight into Washington was making the river approach into National Airport, because the final part of the landing above the Potomac River passed the Lincoln Memorial.
“When I looked out the window of the plane I could tell that the march would be a big success,” Norton said. “There were more than 250,000 people, which was more than had ever come to Washington, D.C. before.”
The politician said she had no idea the march was going to be successful.
“No one had ever held a large march in Washington. There had been one in 1957, but that drew about 25,000 people and this one was in doubt in terms of how many people would come.”
Del. Norton explained that the reasons behind the march—- such as equity in jobs and rights— prompted hundreds of thousands to attend.
“It was a march that Bayard Rustin dubbed for ‘Jobs and Freedom,’ not just for freedom,” she For me, it was a lifetime experience,” she said. “I was a Yale law student but I also was a member of SNCC.”
The organizers of the march included Randolph, Rustin, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy. While most organizers have passed away, a few prominent Civil Rights veterans like Fauntroy, who is also the District’s first Delegate to the U.S. Congress, are still alive.
Marvin Fauntroy, the son of Rev. Fauntroy, said many leaders of the march worked hard until last-minute details were worked out.
“My father, Dr. King, and many others began to pull the event together in early June 1963,” Marvin Fauntroy said. “They had about eight weeks with Bayard Rustin serving as the chief organizer and my father tagged [along] as one of the architects on the local level. There were no new-age devices available like today’s Internet. Even travel was different – the majority of participants came by bus, train, or car instead of by plane.”
The former delegate’s son pointed to a popular story related to the march, when the event’s sound system somehow became damaged. He explained how the problem was resolved.
“Somebody sabotaged the sound system the day before the march and my father and other organizers feared things weren’t going to work out,” he said. “Without the sound system, just a handful of the 250,000 attendees would have been able to hear the speeches. So, he called Robert Kennedy, the then-attorney general of the U.S., who reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who fixed it.”
Norton said in the end, the 1963 March on Washington was successful because from it came three Civil Rights bills: The 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.”
But Norton said many people paid the ultimate cost of freedom from the march such as former President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP. She said Evers’s death was particularly disturbing, who died June of that year.
“I had been in the Miss Delta that summer. When I arrived Medgar Evers met me so he could put me on a bus to Winona, Mississippi, and he dropped me off,” Norton said. “When I arrived at the Southside of Mississippi I learned that he had been assassinated. It was an experience to remember.”
Despite the tragic fatalities and trials, Norton said the march was transformational.
“I think we get real inspiration to see that one march can do so much,” Norton said. “Today the country is so polarized, you probably couldn’t do something like that. Here in the Congress, we would do well to see what can be accomplished when people work together.”
Del. Norton noted there is much division in the House of Representatives today, but told the Informer, despite challenges, she works to fight for legislation for the betterment of Washingtonians and all Americans.
“In terms of Congress, it is more polarized today, but I still work with Republicans,” she said.
The March on Washington volunteer remains inspired by the work of the march 60 years later.
“I want to draw inspiration from the march at a time when Congress is so polarized, and [be reminded of] a time when we got things done.”