The March on Washington

50 years

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Wednesday, August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  The 1963 gathering at the Washington D.C. mall was one of the largest rallies for human rights in history.  Most of us associate it with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered (supposedly impromptu) in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s perhaps the most celebrated speech in America after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, memorable not only for its noble precepts, but the oratorical power and grace of its deliverer.

The march was conceived as a rally for jobs, specifically better job opportunities for African Americans.  Through the influence of civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom in the 1940s had pressured President Roosevelt to end discrimination in the U.S. military, it evolved into a mass protest for civil rights.

Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as 1963 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.

(Rachelle Horowitz, aide to Bayard Rustin, from Smithsonian Magazine article “A Change is Gonna Come”)

Until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks had been oppressed under the stasis of “Jim Crow” statutory legislation – essentially, legalized bigotry and segregation, mainly in the Southern states.  The March on Washington was intended to publicize these injustices nationally.  It ultimately drew 250,000 people, both blacks and whites, and included luminaries like singers Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary; actors Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Ossie Davis; and comedian/activist Dick Gregory.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although there was a large contingency of police, there was no violence.  According to Julian Bond, then communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King’s speech was the centerpiece:

When Dr. King spoke, he commanded the attention of everybody there.  His speech, with his slow, slow cadence at first and then picking up speed and going faster and faster… you saw what a magnificent speechmaker he was, and you knew something important was happening.

Andrew Young, aide to King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), recalls that the march helped broaden the civil rights struggle by illuminating exactly why blacks down South were being beaten, hosed, and even murdered: these weren’t rabble-rousers, but non-violent men, women and children trying to gain some dignity and basic human rights:

(News reports) didn’t say they put the dogs on us because (we) were trying to register to vote.  That never came through.  Or (we) were in places trying to apply for jobs and they ran (us) out with dogs and fire hoses.  Everybody had a 90-second view of the movement from the 6 o’clock news.  And (the march) gave (us) an opportunity, especially in Martin’s speech, to put it in the context.

After the march, organizers met President Kennedy at the door of the Oval Office where, according to John Lewis, chairman of SNCC and now a 13-term Georgia congressman, “He greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.”

Over the last 50 years, civil rights have come a long way.  Today, minorities and women have unprecedented economic and political clout.  But the human rights movement is forever pushing against those who would denigrate and deprive people living on society’s fringes.  One can still see it in those 90-second bits on the 6 o’clock news:  state constitutions banning same-sex marriage and unions; xenophobic congressmen stonewalling against immigration reform; the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act; red states engaged in redistricting and devising creative, new, illogical barriers to voting.

But the March on Washington is proof that, when enough oppressed people organize and loudly proclaim “We have our rights!,” society can progress just a little.

(quotations courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine, July issue)

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March organizers meeting President John F. Kennedy

“Puff, the Magic Dragon”

50 years

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Next month will be 50 years since the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  What a  neat little song!  It was maybe the first “pop” record I ever owned.  I have a fuzzy memory of it being a 45 rpm yellow vinyl copy.  It wouldn’t be long before music would be all-things Beatles.  But in the spring of 1963, folk music was still very popular, and along with the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels and others, PPM was one of the most popular folk acts.

The song has an interesting history.  According to Wikipedia, it had its start with an Ogden Nash poem, “Custard the Dragon,” about a “realio, trulio little pet dragon.”  A Cornell University student named Leonard Lipton borrowed Nash’s idea.  He penned his own poem in 1959 about a boy named Jackie Paper and his dragon friend Puff, who lived by the sea near a land called Honalee.  Jackie grows up and leaves behind the phantasmagoric world of childhood, leaving Puff alone and sad.

Lipton had a friend who happened to be Peter Yarrow’s housemate at Cornell.  He supposedly used Yarrow’s typewriter to write the poem, then forgot about retrieving the paper when he left the room!  Yarrow found the paper, provided music for the poem, recorded it with Paul and Mary in 1962, and a year later the song became a hit.  It’s just a simple homage to childhood, but it struck a chord in a lot of people (including yours truly, who hadn’t yet left Honalee!).  In a gesture you don’t often see anymore, Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and Lipton gets royalty payments even today.

Discussion of “Puff the Magic Dragon” isn’t complete without bringing the infamous marijuana controversy into the mix, however.  Marijuana??  Talk about leaving the land of Honalee!  Yes, even as early as a 1964 Newsweek article, this simple, uplifting tune was accused of having veiled drug references.  The name “Puff” was said to imply a puff on a marijuana cigarette.  “Dragon” was a reference to taking a “drag” on a joint.  Jackie Paper’s surname was supposed to imply rolling papers.  And so on.  I’m not sure if anyone ever suggested playing the song backwards.  Maybe that came later with the “Paul is dead” rumor.

Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and the late Mary Travers strongly denied the allegations.  And I believe them.  (Not sure I believe John Lennon’s defense of his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  If that song isn’t about dropping LSD, then I need to catch a slow boat to Honalee).  As PPM’s concert audience got older, the threesome made sure to do “Puff” at the beginning of their shows.  This way, the kids and grandkids could hear it before falling asleep!

Only a few months after “Puff,” Peter, Paul and Mary scored a number two hit with Bob Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.”   They also performed the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer” alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for civil rights.  So 1963 was a very significant year for the group.

I’d love to verify if that little piece of vinyl I once owned was actually yellow.  My mom saved a lot of things, but unfortunately she didn’t hang on to“Puff.”  Maybe she threw him out when she got rid of my Beatles lunchbox.