I was a Post summer intern — a kid reporter on his first big story — and one of 60 staffers the paper deployed that day. This was a tiny fraction of the number of National Guardsmen and police on the streets but a veritable army for what was then still a provincial daily paper. Ben Gilbert, the imperious city editor, had spent weeks planning the coverage. With help from colleagues, he was about to make one of the biggest goofs of his long career.
I missed the first part of the march. I was sent to watch celebrities arrive at National Airport, where I attended a news conference by Marlon Brando, who wanted to be sure his presence was not misunderstood. Yes, Negroes were treated badly in the United States, Brando said, but “don’t forget the Indian problem.” As soon as the march was over, he promised, he would again be fighting to resolve “the Indian problem.”
I was then dispatched to the corner of Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Post reporters were stationed on every block of Constitution and throughout the Mall to cover any untoward incident. A sea of good-natured, well-dressed humanity paraded before me. The marchers carried signs but shouted no slogans. There was no hint of “trouble,” only the good news of a polite, orderly crowd.
But I was afraid of Gilbert, so I stayed at my post for several hours. Eventually I wandered toward the Lincoln Memorial, where the speeches had been delivered. It was a beautiful August afternoon, and everyone was having a fine time.
I was too late to hear the speeches but soon heard about them, particularly the address by John Lewis, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This is the same John Lewis we know today as an avuncular Georgia representative, a gentle though forceful agitator for the rights of African Americans and the poor. In 1963, Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department considered him a dangerous radical. So he got a disproportionate share of attention from reporters and officials.