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In 1963, Eleanor Holmes Norton was a young civil rights activist who helped organize the March on Washington.
Today she is the non-voting Congresswoman who represents the District of Columbia.
She will be at the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington tomorrow, when the nation will celebrate the legacy of the March and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
She recalled her exhilaration when leaders of the civil rights movement announced that they were actually organizing a march on Washington to demand civil rights for African-Americans. Key among the organizers’ demands was equal access to employment.
“For me, this was what I had longed to hear,” Norton told Here & Now. “There had been 10 years of movement in the South, but there were no remedies in the South. The only remedy was in Washington.”
Even 50 years later, Norton recalls being at the March on Washington vividly.
“The reason the feeling was so palpable and remained with you is that it was a first-of-its-kind feeling,” Norton said. “You believed change would happen because you saw those people come.”
Among the results of the March on Washington was the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which Norton chaired from 1977 to 1981.
Norton says that the real object of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is about the present.
“I am not among those who engage in nostalgia because I think that locks you into a moment in time without thinking about where you are what needs to be done now,” Norton said. “Marches are to get change of the kind that’s needed now.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
In the summer of 1963, Eleanor Holmes Norton was a young law student registering voters when she helped organize the March on Washington, which is being celebrated tomorrow. But organizers couldn't possibly see that future back then. This was a time of lynchings, attack dogs, water cannons. It's hard to remember what a brave thing it was to just walk. Let's remember and herald some of the more unsung leaders with Eleanor Holmes Norton, now the congresswoman from the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Thank you. It's so good to be with you, Robin.
YOUNG: Give us some context because I read other things you've said about this. There were rumors earlier that summer that there might be this big march on Washington. Were you actually doing field work Mississippi?
NORTON: I was because that's what they were, rumors, and we weren't sure that all the leaders of the civil rights movement would get it all together. So down to Mississippi I went and was in the Mississippi Delta when the call came. It's going to happen. If you want to be on the staff, get a plane to New York. For me, this was what I had longed to hear. After all, there had been 10 years of movement in the South, but there were no remedies in the South. The only remedy was in Washington.
YOUNG: And when you say it was going to happen, how was it described to you?
NORTON: It was described to me as a matter in formation that Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph - A. Philip Randolph, of course, the teacher, the head of the march, the only man who'd ever organized anything, the Sleeping Car Porters.
YOUNG: Right. He was a labor union president and quite an activist. And you also mentioned Bayard Rustin. Was he really the leading strategist - another civil rights leader, the leading strategist behind much of the civil rights movement?
NORTON: Well, he was the only real strategist in the civil rights movement. And many of the civil rights leaders depended on him behind the scenes, but it certainly seems to me that there's nobody - there was nobody else who could have organized what amounted to the first mass march for civil rights and for that matter for anything in our country. He was absolutely key, and perhaps the only really key individual.
YOUNG: And you mentioned A. Philip Randolph, again, a labor union president. He and Bayard Rustin wanted it to be better defined. Are they the ones that decided that jobs should be attached to it?
NORTON: They were. The first iteration was something like a march for freedom. Well, there's a lot of content that you can pour into that. Jobs have always been at the forefront of what African-Americans thought they needed to succeed in this country. But it wasn't just the kinds of things we're talking about today where we know that African-American unemployment is twice that of white unemployment and that was then the same way.
It was about being able to get a job in the first place for which you are qualified. And for that, Mr. Randolph and Bayard Rustin thought we needed what Mr. Randolph actually got during World War II when he threatened a march on Washington and FDR, the president, Franklin Roosevelt, established a Fair Employment Practices Commission. Therefore, he got through his demand what he thought was necessary with all those jobs coming online because of the war. But the so-called FEPC, that commission, faded, went out of existence after the war.
One of the prime demands of the March on Washington was to bring us an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And I tell you, Robin, I cannot help but mention that in the streets, that was the demand that meant a great deal to me because here I was in law school, and I wanted - like so many of us - to get jobs which we were qualified. But I certainly did not envision becoming chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about 15 years later.
YOUNG: Sure, I was going to say, you certainly wanted as a young person to help you get a job, but little did you know one of your jobs would be heading it years later.
YOUNG: But give us more context what you mean. You say it's not about just creating more jobs. We're talking about a time when blacks might have the skill for a job, but they were required to take an IQ test for a very sketchy one, sort of the equivalent of a test for voting. This is what you're talking about.
NORTON: And, indeed, the first cases were all about entry level jobs, many of them in the South, jobs which required only a strong back but which required that you take an IQ test. If you had not had an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set those apart, unless they were job-related of course, blacks would be were they were then. It wasn't only about getting a job at NPR. It was about getting a job doing the lowest work in the society, but often work that paid good money because those were - that was a time when the economy was still expanding, and they needed the kind of men and women who do manufacturing and low-level, low-skill work.
YOUNG: And this wasn't just some idea in the ether as people gathered in Washington. There were manuals. This was a produced manifest.
NORTON: It was. Our demands were written out, and that's why we can measure whether or not the march was effective. The so-called Big Six, those were the leaders of the six major civil rights organizations, were the sort of board of directors under which Bayard Rustin worked. They figured their demands. And Bayard Rustin himself, with his uncanny eye for detail, was the detail man, the strategist, the movement intellectual that brought it all together.
YOUNG: Well, you mentioned Bayard Rustin. I want to stay there for a second. A lot of Americans might have - especially younger ones sadly - might have just become aware of him in this month when he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died, I believe, in '87. But tell us more about him, an openly gay man in that time, one of the driving forces in the civil rights movement, who we understand was vilified by even others and some of the others in the civil rights movement who didn't accept homosexuality, but also by politicians in Washington who were trying to somehow drive a stake through the heart of the movement by attacking him.
NORTON: To be sure to discredit - what he thought to discredit the movement, I believe it was Strom Thurmond who took to the Senate floor to try an out a man who had never hidden his homosexuality, Bayard Rustin. Actually, the movement leaders did not vilify Bayard. They welcomed him. They didn't want him as a front man. But when Bayard was attacked during the organization of the march, they closed in and protected him every step of the way even though even today there are African-Americans who don't support the LBGT community.
YOUNG: He was, as you say, one of the Big Six. Let's remember: Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Whitney Young, National Urban League, James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality, Roy Wilkins, NAACP and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Bayard Rustin. Back with more with Eleanor Holmes Norton in a minute. HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW.
I'm Robin Young with Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, working with people like Bayard Rustin, the main strategist for the civil rights movement. She's now the non-voting congresswoman for the District of Columbia.
And, Congresswoman, take us back to that summer day 50 years ago. You stayed in New York to answer phones in the organizing office, so you were not on the many buses heading to Washington, but you did then have the advantage of flying in. When you looked down and first realized what was happening, what did you think?
NORTON: Well, first, I volunteered to stay when...
NORTON: ... Bayard asked for people to stay all night in that four-story brownstone at 103rd in Lenox Avenue because there would be people calling to ask, how do you get to Washington? Is it too late? Because I'm a native Washingtonian, I knew that that would mean I'd have to fly that morning. Also, by the way, I could avoid the buses.
YOUNG: I know. Buses were very hot back then. It was very, very hot.
NORTON: Yes, they were.
NORTON: I particularly wanted to see, and I knew I would be able to see, at least in some spaces, whether or not anybody had come to the march. And I have to tell you, that is one of the most memorable sights I took away from the march, that there were clumps of people all over the place waiting to march. And somehow I knew this was going to be successful. How successful? I couldn't tell from the plane. But I could tell this much: There were people coming to this march...
YOUNG: There were.
NORTON: ...and some of them had been on buses and train - trains all night long in order to get there.
YOUNG: Well, you were ultimately there. Looking at it now from different perspectives - from the platform looking out on the people, from the people looking back up, moving around - can you still - is it just an intellectual exercise, or can you still feel what that felt like that day?
NORTON: Oh, no, it's a palpable exercise. It's not that you remember everything that was spoken or every tune that was sung unless you somehow have a, you know, photographic memory of some kind. The reeling - the feeling was so palpable and remain with you is that it was a first-of-its-kind feeling. We're talking about a march of the kind that had never been done before.
We're talking about the city which was the only place to come if you wanted a real remedy for civil rights. And we're talking about more people than anybody had seen congregated at any one place, asking for their civil rights. That's why the view from looking out, rather than looking up, seemed to me to be the best view of the day because you just couldn't see anything but people. And as far as the eye could see, there were more people.
The success of the march was just a painting before you, with a response crowd that seemed joyful and exhilarated by the very fact of being there. It was as if people who had been reading about all those demonstrations in the South had found, finally, a way to participate themselves.
YOUNG: Do you remember Dr. King's speech, which, you know, we - everyone knows now, was not the one he was going to deliver that day - it was another one - and obviously, you know, inspired? Do you remember that?
NORTON: I remember it. But the problem with the speech is everybody remembers that speech as if the speeches that came before it weren't also brilliant. I remember being exhilarated by each of the speeches, saying, oh, my goodness, these leaders are now speaking to me in the militancy that a young person wanted to hear.
And each one who came seemed so good that by the time Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came - and we had great expectations of him, we knew what he could do - all I can say is he better be good because those who came before him were very, very good.
YOUNG: Hmm. Well...
NORTON: It's as if the moment had inspired them, just as it inspired King himself.
YOUNG: Cite some, if you will.
NORTON: For example, if you expected Roy Wilkins or Whitney Young, who were leaders respectively of the NAACP and the Urban League, to be a little less fiery, then other speakers like Martin Luther King, forget about it because each seemed to feel the immediacy of the moment and threw away whatever was to be the script for who they were supposed to be.
Now, they weren't all John Lewis, who was, of course, my leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who played the role and function given to him, the young and impatient leader of the youth movement.
YOUNG: He, of course, is the last living speaker from that March on Washington. I wonder what it was like, though, how extraordinary a day, and then the next summer you have the three workers killed in Mississippi. You know, you have tumults. You have - did you think it was all for naught?
NORTON: The March on Washington?
YOUNG: Yeah. When the...
NORTON: Oh, far from it. Remember, a year after the March on Washington, there's a straight line to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So there was an ongoing sense that it would take years of struggle because, frankly, we had gotten nothing except after we went in the streets. There have been 10 years of struggle. And what did we have to show for it?
NORTON: It was only when we came to Washington or, sadly, when there was violence, as in Selma and, even worse, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 when we finally got the Fair Housing Act.
YOUNG: Well, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, we last spoke with you in 2008 at the Democratic convention in Denver. You had just watched Barack Obama become the first African-American nominated as a presidential candidate from a major party. And we were having a very straightforward interview, and suddenly you became very teary, and you said something about how you were thinking of people who weren't there.
And I found myself preparing for this, thinking, well, are you talking about Bayard or the others who organized that march, Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin? They might have been in your - on your mind then.
NORTON: They certainly where because if you think about who made this possible, almost none of them are here now. We know that that possibility was raised by countless actors for 50 years. But if you wanted to look at a moment in time, when it would have not been crazy to think of an African-American president, you would have to look at the March on Washington, where you saw a change in the air. You felt it. You believe change would happen because you saw those people come.
And for once, it was clear that we're black and white people from all over the country, whose consciousness had been raised by people who had done that struggle in the South, but for change that would affect each and every state of the union.
YOUNG: Yeah. What will you be thinking about on this anniversary? I know you are among many who don't think that the struggle is over by any means. That there's a lot left to be done. But what will you be thinking?
NORTON: Well, I am not among those who engage in nostalgia because I think that locks you into a moment in time without thinking about where you are and what needs to be done now. I'll tell you what I will be thinking.
NORTON: I will be thinking whether or not we understand what marches are for. Marches are to get change of the kind that's needed now. And so here we are with the changes virtually being dictated to you. This march doesn't stand for getting the needed revision in the Voting Rights Act that was invalidated by the Supreme Court in June, if it doesn't stand for standing down those Stand Your Ground laws, if it doesn't stand for D.C. statehood, I'll be very disappointed because a march is not for the joy of marching. It's for change. And those are 21st century versions of the march on Washington 2013.
YOUNG: That's Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting representative of D.C., as she just said, D.C. not having statehood. Congresswoman Norton, thank you so much for speaking with us.
NORTON: Always a pleasure.
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YOUNG: And we will get some of those other speeches from 1963 at our website, hereandnow.org.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And we will have live coverage of the 50th anniversary celebration tomorrow.
YOUNG: I can't wait. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.