CAPTION 1: Marvin Fauntroy, son of former D.C. delegate and civil rights leader the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, standing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. (WI Photo by Anthony Tilghman)
Anticipation continues to grow with calendars marked for Friday, Aug. 28 when Americans will gather on the National Mall to celebrate the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
And while Marvin Fauntroy, 55, had not been born, as the son of civil rights icon and former D.C. delegate, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, 87, he has had dozens of conversations with his father detailing the formative stages of the march and the varied responses of American citizens.
This time, instead of Dr. King, Walter Fauntroy and others laying the groundwork for the march, the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, has volunteered his organization to lead the commemorative event.
Marvin says the event remains a defining moment in his father’s life.
“My father, Dr. King and many others began to pull the event together in early June, 1963,” Marvin said. “They had about eight weeks with Bayard Rustin serving as the chief organizer and my father tagged 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. Still, they had a job to do and realized that the march had to be successful or the entire Civil Rights Movement would suffer untold setbacks.”
Marvin pointed to a popular story related to the march when the event’s sound system somehow became damaged and 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,” Marvin 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.”
“Some may not know that portions of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, his most memorable sermon which he shared to the throng at the march, had been written by both King with other ministers’ assistance. In addition, King first delivered it, with few changes from its later and more historic version, while speaking to a congregation in Detroit earlier that year.
As for the march, Marvin says it established a bond between many of the families in which one or more members served as civil rights leaders.
“All of the civil rights leaders’ immediate families are like relatives,” he said. “Dr. King’s children became like Cousin Marty or Cousin Bernice to me and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young became Uncle Ralph and Uncle Andy. We were family because we understood the stress and strain that we were all experiencing.”
“My father and Dr. King established a strong bond years before the march which explains why Dr. King appointed my father to lead the District branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. They met when Dr. King was a student at Virginia Union in the 1950s and they became close. When he chose my father to oversee the SCLS office in D.C., it seems he wanted someone who knew how Congress and the federal government worked. That was part of the strategy: learning how the system worked so things could get done.”
The success of the march and the movement opened many doors for Walter Fauntroy according to his son including his serving as vice chairman for the pre-Home Rule Washington City Council, a role to which he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. He would go on to win the election in 1972 to become the first District delegate in Congress after a vacancy that had extended for close to 100 years. He achieved other milestones including his participation in the anti-apartheid movement – something that Marvin describes as “a natural extension of the work my father did during the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S.”
The senior Fauntroy’s political career ended when he declined to run for reelection to Congress and set his sights on a losing bid for mayor of the District in 1990 instead. He would lose the Democratic primary to then Sharon Pratt Dixon, who eventually became mayor.
“I still don’t understand why Dad left Congress to run for mayor,” Marvin said. “If he had become mayor, I think many of the things he did and tried to do for his community, the nation and the world, may have been overlooked or unappreciated.”
After his exit from politics, Walter remained as the senior pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church, a position he had held for decades and from which he retired in 2009, also serving as a lobbyist and political consultant.
Marvin hopes people will remember his father’s work and remains open to ways to best celebrate his legacy. He noted that due to his father’s failing health, he will be unable to attend Friday’s march.
“If he could attend, he’d probably be thinking about those days back in 1963,” Marvin said. “Both Blacks and whites showed up for the march – something that was unheard of especially in such large numbers. You had people from all ages and backgrounds there. Fifty-seven years later, we’re focused on COVID-19. And human rights aren’t just about Black issues – right is right.”
“One thing I know – he’s pleased to see today’s younger generation picking up the torch.”