The Live Coverage of the March on Washington: It’s Not What Most People Think

By Ron Simon
Clips Selected by Barry Monush

Martin Luther King Jr.'s soaring rhetoric during the March on Washington was one of the transformative moments in United States history. His "I Have a Dream" speech interwove Biblical and American themes, yielding an aspirational roadmap for future race relations. But how many people actually saw this iconic moment live on television in addition to the 250, 000 who participated in the March? Not as many as you would think.

If you look at the TV Guides from August 1963, you discover that the commercial networks at that time were not sure how to cover such a spontaneous event. They pooled their camera teams, and the plan was for each station to broadcast live coverage as they wanted throughout the day. A fear of unrest and rioting shrouded the minds of the white TV executives. Listen to the skeptical opening questions to civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Dr. King on Meet the Press, the Sunday before the March. Both leaders were on the defensive during most of the interview, and even their predictions for the expected crowd of 100,000 were way off.

I am sure that the sheer number of marchers stunned the networks officials that Wednesday in August. No network transmitted any extended coverage of the morning's musical performance, and so a national audience did not experience how the music by such stalwarts as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Peter, Paul, and Mary fueled the spirits of the protesters. Ironically, more people have seen these performances on YouTube than ever saw them live on TV.

The formal ceremony of speeches began in the afternoon and only CBS covered them live. The other commercial networks went with their regular daytime schedule. A reviewer at the time noted that American Bandstand, which was seen daily in the afternoon on ABC, had responded to the times by slowly integrating its dance show, but only one African American was seen dancing that momentous day. During King's speech it was "fun and games" on the other networks, according to Variety. Instead of watching history unfold, viewers could tune into such daily fare as Who Do You Trust?, The Loretta Young Show, or The Match Game. After the speeches had finished both ABC and NBC, initially worried about ratings and potential trouble, did a recap, making sure their versions were edited.

CBS spent a good deal of its early afternoon coverage by talking to politicians about the impact of the March. Several senators thought that the March would have a deleterious effect on race relations. CBS missed several important highlights of the ceremony, including the short tribute to the women of civil rights. But the major speeches of the participating groups were interpreted with some commentary. Roger Mudd, who was the anchor for CBS News, noted that the rhetoric of the youngest speaker, John Lewis of SNCC, was toned down from his original vision. He dispassionately opined that Dr. King's speech moved the crowd to a standing ovation, with nothing on the substance. But that was more than the Washington Post's lead story, which concentrated on the orderliness of the crowd, never mentioning Dr. King at all.

The networks came to realize that there was a great interest in the event, especially in New York. CBS produced an instant prime-time special that did as well as its competition, The Virginian (NBC) and Wagon Train ABC). NBC pre-empted the first forty-five minutes of the Tonight Show for a superbly edited rundown of the day's events. Once can imagine that Dr. King's transcendent oratory began to symbolize the entirety of that pleasant August day as more and more highlight tapes were produced.

What soon was forgotten were the other speeches, many of which were moving and should be remembered. My colleague Barry Monush has curated four moments that give a sense of the totality of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. You should pay particular attention to the fiery rhetoric of the young John Lewis, now elder statesman from Georgia, and the passionate remarks of labor leader Walter Reuther. The finale of the March was the reciting of the Pledge for racial justice and equality administered by the day's two organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. It was planned to be a spectacular, participatory moment, which would live in the hearts and minds of the audience, who were on the Mall or watching on television. But it was the preceding speech by Dr. King that eventually belonged to the ages.