Fifty years ago today, and I was there. Well, partly, anyway. I was a reporter for the Washington Post, assigned to cover George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party for the day. The Nazi contingent had been allocated a spot way down by the Washington Monument, discreetly remote.
I got there at dawn. Already busses were rolling in, carrying mostly blacks from all over the country. They were singing together, happy and excited. America’s ancient cancer seemed for that moment to be in remission. It seemed at last possible to hope. Tears came to my eyes, the only time I ever cried as a reporter.
Rockwell and fifteen or twenty of his silly Nazi wannabes finally arrived, to become a tiny white tumor in this huge, healthy and mostly black organism. They were dressed in khakis with swastika armbands, black neckties and black belts. In the place of jackboots they wore street shoes or black sneakers.
The crowd surrounding the make-believe Sturmbannführers seemed more curious than hostile. The March on Washington was intended to be a demonstration of nonviolence, after all.
The day was turning out to be hot and long, though. When at last the proceedings began, tiny unrecognizable figures far off at the other end of the Reflecting Pool seemed to be saying or singing things that were hard to make out over the loudspeakers.
The temper of the crowd around the Nazis began to change. Nothing overt yet, but a mutter here and there, a gesture or two. The Nazis began to take council with each other and with their leader. Master race or not, Rockwell’s troopers found themselves in the heart of darkness — a tiny handful against a quarter of a million marchers.
And so they headed out, to rouse the rabble another day. The crowd made way for them, and the ragged little column walked, not marched, toward their headquarters across the Potomac in Arlington. I went along for a while, in case anything happened. But nothing did. Halfway across Memorial Bridge I turned back and headed for the office to write my story.
Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Marian Anderson hadn’t even come on yet. And of course I missed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as well. I missed practically the whole thing. All I had was the memory of those busses arriving from all over the country at first light, and the people getting off laughing and singing in the still-cool dawn, full of impossible hope. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could put in the paper, though.
The metropolitan editor called me over after I turned in my story and read a line back to me: ‘Memorial Bridge rang to the shuffle of the storm troopers’ sneakers as they headed for home.’
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” he asked. “Sneakers can’t ring.”