by James J. Duffin
The announcement of a large people’s demonstration set to take place on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial caused consternation to a public experiencing daily newscasts of civil rights demonstrators battling police in scores of Southern states.
The question was: Could a demonstration by thousands of marchers come to the nation’s capital without causing widespread damage and acts of violence? The organizers, in their final plan for the march, stated, “Our bodies, numbering over 100,000, will bear witness, will serve historic notice, that jobs and freedom are needed now.”
The list of the ten honorary chairmen for the march, which included representatives of the three major faiths, civil rights organizations and labor unions, generated a feeling of comfort to those thinking about participating. The feeling was that this was a citizen’s opportunity to speak to power, and it sparked an upsurge in their determination to bring the myriad local demonstrations into one significant witness that would help to resolve an American crisis.
The call for the March on Washington resonated among us, many of whom were recent Catholic college graduates, social activists and residents of integrated neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia. The longstanding Philadelphia Catholic Interracial Council was inactive, and a new ad-hoc group was needed.
A surge of optimism was in the air. The civil rights movement was gathering strength, and the renewal of our staid Catholic practices was underway. We were the Vatican II generation with a special enthusiasm generated by the council.
Several preliminary discussions were firmed up at a meeting at my house. The plan was to hire a bus to transport us to Washington. Agreeing to meet the bus downtown, parked near the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, we boarded the bus but nothing moved. Our grand journey was at an end before it had even begun. As ludicrous as it now seems, the driver asked passengers to get out and push the bus. We did, and with determination pushed it until the motor came to life.
Finally underway and traveling south on Route 1, it was amazing to see bus after bus speeding to DC. Entering Washington, we passed a Catholic parish and saw nuns and children waving the busses on, which perked up our spirits.
Busses were then directed to disembark. We marched with hundreds of others toward the Lincoln Memorial holding our banner “Philadelphia Catholics for Interracial Justice” along with other placards.
Boarding the bus in Philadelphia was a stranger – perhaps Eastern European and carrying a large icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa – who asked to join us. With the icon in our midst, and moving with thousands of others, the march also became a pilgrimage.
Our allotted space at the side of the Washington Monument denied us any sight lines, but an audio broadcast kept us in touch.
Inspired by Dr. King’s words and in solidarity with the multitude surrounding us, we savored the moment. All that remained was to return home. Miraculously, we identified our bus, and it started without pushing.
After an uneventful return, we disembarked at the Cathedral and went our separate ways, hoping that we were a Catholic witness at a turning point in the cause of civil rights.
But the organizers of the march made one huge mistake: Instead of “over 100,000” we were part of a million strong.
James J. Duffin is a resident of Mt. Airy.