I was there, on that historic day 50 years ago, yes I was. I was a young reporter for the Washington Post covering the March on Washington. Well, part of it anyway. The beginning. It was still dark when I showed up down by the Washington Monument, barely in the same time zone as the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King and the others would speak.
My assignment was to cover George Lincoln Rockwell and his storm troopers in the American Nazi Party. The assignment of some 200 Washington policemen and National Guard MPs was to make sure that the constitutional right of the Nazis peaceably to assemble and freely to speak would be thoroughly abridged.
But neither the Nazis nor the cops had shown up yet. Only the marchers. Bus after bus was pulling in with out-of-state plates, headlights still on from driving all night. Dazed, sleepy, excited, confused people climbed out, carrying picnic hampers, lunch pails, shopping bags, blankets, umbrellas. Black and white, but mostly black. Negroes, we said then.
This was an amazing thing, this march that was assembling itself. Nothing like it had been seen before. Hatred, fire hoses, dogs, bombs, the bullets and clubs, these things we had seen. And now out of all this was coming courage and love and hope. In the dark I felt like crying, I was so proud of us at last. The next time I was to feel that way about my country was the night we elected Obama.
Back to the Nazis, though. There were 75 of them and my memory is that they wore their little Nazi caps and their little Nazi armbands and uniforms when they appeared at 6 a.m., but they didn’t. The story I resurrected from the Post archives yesterday says that the storm troopers wore mufti, and sneakers instead of jackboots. They were corralled into a space about 50 yards square, and the crowd outside the perimeter mostly ignored them. We were too far away to hear the early speakers, but the deputy commander of the Nazis tried to make a speech of his own at about 11. The police arrested him for speaking without a permit, and the whole bunch of them, my story says, “then trailed off single file across the 14th Street Bridge toward their cars.”
I trailed off myself for the paper, and wrote my story. It was about ten inches long. The headline was “Rockwell Nazis ‘Kaput’ in Counter Move,” which was the sort of failed attempt at cleverness or cuteness or something that was to be expected from the burn-outs on the copy desk.
My own attempt at cleverness had been, “The bridge rang from the shuffle of their sneakers as the storm troopers headed home to Virginia.”
“What the hell is this, Jerry?” the city editor said. “Shuffles don’t ring.”
“Yeah, but…” I started out. “Oh, Christ, Ben, go ahead. Change it any way you want.”
It must have been about that time, across town, that Martin Luther King was having his dream.