Many of the people involved in the planning of the March on Washington worried that something might go wrong. Organizers paid close attention to each and every detail, from the path of the procession to the placement of portable toilets and water fountains throughout the capital grounds. They carefully selected each speaker, pre-approved each speech, and in some cases censored what they considered to be radical content. Under pressure from President John F. Kennedy and financial supporters of the movement, planners took every measure to ensure that the mass demonstration would not erupt in violence and discredit the civil rights struggle.5
They succeeded. On 28 August 1963, a quarter of a million people paraded peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial, the largest crowd to that date that had ever assembled at the nation's capital. And it all went off without a hitch... or so it seemed.
What many historians have called the "finest hour" of the Civil Rights Movement was really the moment when growing rifts in the struggle, especially conflicts developing between white supporters and black activists, began to surface. While Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed uplifting folk songs and Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, "I have a dream," John Lewis chose to deliver a far more apprehensive speech about the progress of the movement. Lewis, as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was concerned about the absence at the march of the most impoverished black men and women, especially sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and domestic workers. "In good consciousness," he had planned to say, "we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late."6 Powerful white participants censored large portions of Lewis's original speech. Other scheduled guest speakers, like James Baldwin, the author of The Fire Next Time, were considered too radical and cut from the line-up altogether.
Conflicts behind the scenes frustrated many black activists who feared that African-Americans would lose control of their struggle. Malcolm X worried that white allies had begun to deter black leaders from their original goals. "They took it over," he remarked. The "Farce on Washington," as he called it, proved that the role of whites in the movement had grown terribly problematic.7
Then, two weeks after the march, on a Sunday morning in September, a bomb tore through the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls and injuring many others. The incident shocked the black community. Most were left conflicted and frustrated, and many questioned Dr. King's message. Had he asked too much of them? Had he made a fatal mistake in assuming white racists would transform?
Some were convinced King had made a fatal mistake, and they cursed the heavy toll exacted by his strategy. Leaders such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and Elaine Brown believed that true black revolutionaries could not depend upon white support and should not "turn the other cheek."
By the late 1960s, black radicalism had effectively replaced the nonviolent movement. Organizations such as the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, and a newly militant SNCC drew inspiration from a deep history of black liberation struggles, slave uprisings, and race pride. These groups also tapped the frustrations of urban black populations disillusioned by rising unemployment, police brutality, and disintegrating public services. Many regular people chose to join these groups, arm themselves, and prepare for the new, more violent, phase of the black struggle for freedom. "We shall overcome" became "We shall overrun!"
Still others needed no leaders to explain their plight. Joblessness, inferior schooling, physical isolation from city services, and police abuse had taken their toll upon those living in impoverished urban communities throughout the nation. For these reasons, thousands of people in hundreds of cities took to the streets, shattering the peaceful image of black protest. Often spontaneous and unorganized, riots revealed the depths of black despair.
Urban uprisings, however, didn't lead to any improvements in black life. Instead, violent civil disobedience only increased police surveillance, drove businesses and investors further away, and contributed to a powerful white backlash to civil rights.
Throughout the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, America found it easy to decipher the "good guys" from the "bad guys." The nation watched nightly news broadcasts featuring images of whites screaming and assaulting black demonstrators who silently and solemnly sat at lunch counters. They watched black children, women, and elderly protesters blasted with fire hoses and battered by billy clubs while they prayed. They listened to the shocking story of NAACP member Medgar Evars shot and killed in his driveway, and the horrifying report of a Baptist church bombed on a Sunday morning that took the lives of four little black girls. As underdogs, victims, and martyrs, nonviolent activists won the sympathy of Americans and people all over the world.
But by the early 1970s, as the call for "Black Power!" had replaced hymns of compassion, and riots flared, Americans grew weary of the Civil Rights Movement and the violence they associated with it. This backlash culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a conservative Republican candidate who promised to roll back social programs and bring an end to "big government." Two decades after the great March on Washington, the nation had all but forgotten about one of the most revolutionary moments in its history.
Historians today disagree on the year in which the Civil Rights Movement officially ended. Some cite the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Others claim that the reelection of Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1972 signaled its death. These events certainly contributed to significant transformations within the movement and, perhaps, to its decline, but whether the campaign for civil rights has ceased to exist—whether black Americans have discontinued the organized struggle for equality and justice—is up for debate.