Martin Luther King and the race riot that never was

Martin Luther King addresses the march

History remembers the speech, the huge numbers and the peaceful protest. Yet behind the scenes, the famous march on Washington in 1963 provoked suspicion, anxiety and deep-seated fears in the White House that the day would end in violence.

Across America, black fury had broken loose.

A swirl of protests, touched off by weeks of racial strife in Birmingham, Alabama, where police dogs had torn at the flesh of protesters and powerful fire hoses had been trained on children, now engulfed much of the country.

Between May and late August in 1963, there had been 1,340 demonstrations in more than 200 cities. Some were communities long splintered along racial lines. Others had never before been touched by violence. The randomness of the disturbances made it all the more terrifying. Now, with 200,000 protesters about to converge on the nation's capital, there were fears that Washington itself could witness the same chaos and disorder.

For the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the untitled leader of the civil rights movement, the events of the early summer had transformed the struggle for black equality from what he called a "Negro protest" into a "Negro revolution". America, he feared, had reached "explosion point".

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama Four girls died in the 1963 bombing of this Alabama church, which served as a meeting place for civil rights activists such as King
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Anxious voices made themselves heard within the Kennedy administration as well.

"Issues which are not settled by justice and fair play will sooner or later be settled by force and violence," warned Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. President Kennedy's sole black adviser Louis Martin also raised the spectre of a breakdown in order.

From pastor to martyr

Martin Luther King
  • Born to Baptist minister and schoolteacher in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Followed father's footsteps and joined clergy
  • Helped Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 that led to Supreme Court victory against segregation
  • Imprisoned after involvement in protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963
  • Made his most famous speech on steps of Lincoln Memorial
  • Awarded Nobel Peace Prize the following year
  • Assassinated in 1968 in Memphis

"The accelerated tempo of Negro restiveness," he warned privately, "may create the most critical state of race relations since the Civil War." During a tense White House meeting in May, Attorney General Robert Kennedy also warned his elder brother that the situation risked getting out of hand. "Negroes are now just antagonistic and mad and they're going to be mad at everything. You can't talk to them," he said. "My friends all say [even] the Negro maids and servants are getting antagonistic."

For most of his presidency, John F Kennedy had viewed civil rights as a political issue to manage rather than a moral question to champion. To take on the south was to risk splintering the Democratic Party, then an angry amalgam of northern liberals, southern segregationists and pragmatists like the president, who tried to straddle the divide. Nor did Kennedy, who was famed for his cool detachment, have a strong emotional commitment to the freedom struggle. He had largely been a bystander to the great social revolution of the age.

By the summer of 1963, however, he realised that his presidency might come to be defined by his response to the racial crisis. Inaction was no longer an option. As he cautioned during a nationwide television address in June, the "fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, north and south".

US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, US Army chief-of-staff General Maxwell Taylor and President Kennedy

To get protesters off the streets, he had finally introduced a long-awaited civil rights bill that would begin to dismantle segregation, the system of racial apartheid that prevailed across much of the American south. But even after he had made his nationwide address, and finally lent the weight of his office to the black struggle, the protests and violence continued. A massive demonstration in Washington, then, was fraught with danger.

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Robert Kennedy, pictured in 1967

My friends all say [even] the maids are getting antagonistic”

End Quote Robert Kennedy's warning to JFK

When the administration learned midway through June of plans for the march on Washington, its first response was to pressure black leaders into cancelling. At a White House meeting, Kennedy told Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders that he did not want "a big show on the Capitol" because it would complicate efforts to enact the civil rights bill into law. When attempts at persuasion failed, the administration decided instead to try to wrestle control of the demonstration. Here, the president was adamant - shockingly so. "They're liable to come down here and shit all over the [Washington] monument," he told aides. "I've got a civil rights bill to get through. We'll run it."

To prevent the demonstration turning into a massive race riot, Kennedy ordered a mobilisation of the federal government's security apparatus unprecedented outside of wartime. To start with, the FBI ramped up its already vast surveillance operation on the civil rights movement, which included electronic eavesdropping on King. It instructed every field office across the country to provide intelligence on how many local black activists planned to converge on Washington, and whether they had any affiliation with communist organisations.

An additional fear was that black radicals, who had rejected the non-violent tactics of the more moderate civil rights groups, would hijack the march. Almost 150 FBI agents were assigned to mingle in the crowd, working in tandem with secret service agents. Others were stationed at rooftop observation points on the Lincoln Memorial, Union Station and the Commerce Department overlooking the Mall. At the FBI headquarters, which director J Edgar Hoover feared might come under attack from protesters, security was also tightened. Staff were warned to sit away from the windows.

For weeks beforehand, the prospect of violence also preoccupied the Washington police department, which was placed on its highest state of alert. It came up with no less than 72 potential disaster scenarios, and plotted a response to each one. It helped that the Lincoln Memorial was enclosed on three sides by water, which made it easier to police. But every corner of downtown Washington would also be protected. On Capitol Hill, a thin blue line of officers, standing 5ft apart, would surround Congress.

Protesters in Constitution Avenue

A policeman or National Guardsman would be stationed on every corner in the downtown business district to guard against looting. To beef up the police presence, hundreds of additional officers were drafted in from neighbouring suburban forces, who attended specially organised riot training courses. So many law enforcement resources were devoted to policing the march, the FBI feared a spate of bank robberies in the capital's outlying neighbourhoods.

Despite this massive mobilisation, police dogs remained in their kennels. Mindful of the ugly images from Birmingham in May, where the photographs of young protesters being mauled by snarling dogs had shocked so many white Americans, their presence could easily incite the crowd.

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So many law enforcement resources were devoted to policing the march, the FBI feared a spate of bank robberies”

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Because so many arrests were expected, a team of local judges was placed on round-the-clock stand-by in the city's courtrooms. At the District of Columbia's jailhouse, 350 inmates were evacuated to create space for disruptive protesters. Elective surgery in the greater Washington area was cancelled, so that more than 350 beds could be set aside for riot-related emergencies. The DC General Hospital even went as far as to activate its "national disaster plan".

Life in Washington was completely disrupted in the run-up to the march. Government offices shut down and federal employees were advised to stay home. There was a 24-hour ban on the sale of alcohol, the first time it had been banned in the nation's capital since Prohibition.

Fears about the violent potential of the march also worried its organisers, led by the charismatic Bayard Rustin, who decided to work closely with the administration to make sure it passed off peaceably. They agreed to bring forward the start time so that protesters would not be left wandering the streets after dark. More reluctantly, they consented to a change in venue. The original plan, for a mass protest on the steps of the US Congress, was shelved. Instead they chose Lincoln Memorial, a more manageable and less politically sensitive site.

Other Lincoln Memorial events

Glenn Beck rally
  • Marian Anderson sang on the steps to 70,000 people in 1939 after being barred from Constitution Hall because she was black
  • King was the final speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the spot on which he stood was engraved in 2003
  • President Richard Nixon met Vietnam War protesters and chatted to them in an unplanned visit in 1970, startling his aides in the process
  • Broadcaster Glenn Beck summoned a huge crowd in 2010 (above) for a One Nation Working Together rally

Even after weeks of meticulous planning, administration officials could not rule out the threat of violence. So on march day itself, the District of Columbia was placed under virtual martial law, with the president ordering the biggest peacetime military build-up in US history. By mid-morning on 28 August, five military bases on the outskirts of the capital were bursting with activity, as a heavily-armed 4,000-strong task force with the code-name Inside prepared for deployment.

At Fort Myer, Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade, Quantico Marine base and the Anacostia Naval Station, 30 helicopters had been flown in especially to provide a rapid airlift capability. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 15,000 Special Forces troops, dubbed STRICOM, were placed on stand-by, ready to be airlifted at the first sign of trouble.

If violence flared, speed of deployment was essential. All the necessary presidential proclamations, executive orders and letters of military instruction were prepared in advance. If rioting erupted, the White House would issue a presidential proclamation calling on protesters to disperse forthwith.

If the violence continued, the president would sign an executive order authorising the Pentagon to take "all appropriate steps" to disperse the crowd. As a confidential memo put it: "Desire for use of minimum force must not jeopardise successful completion of mission."

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson
  • The role of Mahalia Jackson in King's I Have A Dream speech is often overlooked
  • It was her heckle - "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin" - that led him to go off-script
  • She was a Grammy-winning gospel singer from a poor family in New Orleans
  • Jackson became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and sang at King's funeral

In response to an escalating situation, troops would first brandish unloaded rifles with bayonets fixed and sheathed, then bare bayonets. If that failed, tear gas could be used, and then loaded rifles with bare bayonets fixed. The mission went by the code-name Operation Washington. So heavy was the military build-up that one reporter observed that "the city was transformed from the capital of a nation at peace to a nation at war".

Throughout the morning of 28 August, as the demonstration took shape outside his windows, President Kennedy remained safely inside the White House chairing a meeting of foreign policy advisers on Vietnam. Ahead of the march, he had resisted demands from King and the other leaders of the so-called "Big Six" civil rights organisations for a presidential audience that morning, since he did not want to be identified too closely with a demonstration that might become violent.

His advisers also worried that black leaders would arrive at the White House with a list of unreasonable demands which the president would find impossible to meet. If they left the Oval Office aggrieved, the whole tenor of the demonstration could rapidly change. Much to the march organisers' disappointment, Kennedy also decided against sending protesters a presidential statement, fearing it could spark demonstrations against him on the Mall. Instead, he agreed to host a delegation of black leaders at the White House after the march was over, hoping it would soften their rhetoric against him.

As a further precaution against fiery speechifying - and also to prevent subversives from seizing control of the public address system - an administration official was positioned to the right of the Lincoln Memorial with an automatic cut-off switch and a record turntable. If protesters overran the speaker's platform, the sound feed would be cut and replaced by Mahalia Jackson singing "He's got the whole world in his hands."

Previously on the BBC

At 1.40 pm, West Wing aides wheeled a small television into the Oval Office, and Kennedy began to watch just as King was about to speak. Standing midway up the steps of the most magnificent pulpit that America could offer, the preacher looked out over a stirring tableau of some 200,000 demonstrators, stretching down either side of the Reflecting Pool, way down the Mall to the spire of the Washington Monument. Thousands were stretched out on the grass verges, jammed elbow to elbow, while others waded knee-deep in the water to escape the heat. A few were perched in the elm and oak trees, lilting from side to side in the late afternoon breeze. They were singing, praying, hugging, laughing and applauding.

With the brooding statue of Abraham Lincoln peering down at him, King began by telling protesters that their presence in the symbolic shadow of the "great emancipator" offered proof of the marvellous new militancy sweeping the country. For too long, he complained, black Americans had been exiles in their own land, "crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination".

The whirlwinds of revolt would continue to shake the very foundations of the country: "And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as normal," King said. It would be fatal for the nation "to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro".

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He's good - he's damned good”

End Quote Kennedy on King

Wearied by the suffocating heat, the crowd's initial response was muted. The speech was not going well. "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin," shouted Mahalia Jackson, referring to a rhetorical riff that King had used several times before, but which had not made it into his prepared speech because aides insisted he needed fresh material. But King decided to cast aside his prepared notes, and launched extemporaneously into the refrain for which he will forever be remembered.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed," he shouted, his out-stretched right arm reaching towards the sky. Soon he was hitting his rhythm, invigorated by the chants and cries of the crowd. "Dream on!" they shouted. "Dream on!"

With his voice thundering down the Mall, King imagined a future in which his children could "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character". Then he reached his impassioned finale.

Protester King asked the crowd to yell so it was heard the world over

Watching at the White House, the president was riveted. Like so many Americans, it was the first time he had heard the 34-year-old preacher deliver a speech in its entirety - the first time he had taken its measure, listened to its cadence. "He's good," Kennedy told one of his advisors. "He's damned good." The aide was struck, however, that the president seemed impressed more by the quality of King's performance rather than the power of his message.

But a vital message it was. King had made a compelling case for non-violent racial change, and done so with such eloquence and power that it reverberated not only on Washington's Mall, but also in the living rooms of white Americans. Terrible and violent days lay ahead. But, for all the fears beforehand, this one, 28 August 1963, was staggeringly beautiful.

So happily, the march proved anticlimactic for the Washington police. By dusk, there had been just three arrests, all involving whites. In the event, the only threat to police came not from unruly protesters but the chicken box dinners handed out earlier in the morning, which had not been properly refrigerated. Just after 4pm, the police chief issued his most important order of the day: that under no circumstances should his officers touch the chicken.

At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, King and his colleagues were bundled into a caravan of government limousines, which then edged slowly through the departing crowds to the White House. Kennedy met the black leaders with an out-stretched hand, and a jaunty reprise of the lilting refrain that had lifted the whole civil rights movement to a new spiritual plane: "I have a dream."

And with that, he ushered them into the Oval Office.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality

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