Imagine, with me, one of Santa Rosa's few "Negro" (a term that was politically correct in 1963) families crowded around a small, rabbit-eared TV, peering into the gray and black snowy screen, looking for one man among 250,000 people.
Impossible, yes. At the moment, the sighting far overshadowed secret concern for the safety of Gilbert Gray, then president of the Santa Rosa NAACP, the only local member who made the journey. Why would this family be concerned for his safety? Because 1963 was unsafe for Negroes.
What was contained in the inner spirit of this man, husband, father of nine children, who found courage enough to place himself in jeopardy in response to a call to demand an end to Jim Crow, the right to vote, school integration, fair housing, equal pay and justice? Part of the answer can now be found in history.
Known as the "Big Six," a coalition of civil rights organizations, all with different approaches and different agendas, spent almost three years in galvanizing and organizing. Their goal was a large turnout, and they overcame their differences for the day.
They were James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Roy Wilkins of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League. Various labor unions were in support, but the powerful AFL-CIO remained neutral. Numerous faith-based groups supported the march.
President John F. Kennedy originally "discouraged" the march fearing that it would cause Congress to vote against pending civil rights legislation in reaction to a perceived threat. As it became clear that the march would go on, support reluctantly was given.
Opposition came from two sides. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, were absolutely opposed to any event supporting racial equality.
On the other side, other civil rights activists condemned the march. They were vocal in saying the march presented "a sanitized pageant of racial harmony."
Malcolm X called it the "farce of Washington." Members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.
Gray and NAACP branch presidents from Vallejo, Pittsburg and Richmond pooled their limited funds, decided who had the most reliable vehicle and drove across a dangerously hostile, segregated country.
Dressed in suits, hats, white shirts and ties, with well-stocked shoe boxes of food, water, they stopped only for gas, breaks at the clearly designated "colored only" restrooms and to change driver. Sensing the danger, they drove straight through on each leg of the journey.
A heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary, and the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness.
Speakers included five of the "Big Six" leaders. James Farmer, in jail in Louisiana, sent a speech, which was read by Floyd McKissick. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious and labor leaders joined their voices. The lone female speaker was Josephine Baker, who introduced several "Negro women fighters for freedom," including Rosa Parks.
Musical legends Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary participated. A contingent of movie artists included Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, who read a speech by James Baldwin.