By Kenneth Lavon Johnson
2:08 PM EDT, August 27, 2013
In the spring of 1963, when I was a student at the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps School in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to speak to the student body of the University of Virginia.
At the time, my brother, Henry Floyd Johnson, was studying at UVA while also serving as the pastor of a church in Charlottesville. He had known King for some time, and took me to meet him on the evening that he was scheduled to speak.
King greeted me warmly, and we chatted for about 15 minutes. He was smaller than I had imagined, and he exuded a warm and peaceful spirit.
In his speech, which he titled "The Future of Integration," he said something that I have never forgotten: "Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperating with good."
The following day, a nearly incoherent editorial in the UVA student newspaper roundly criticized King, suggesting that he and his allies pay more attention to "Negro maladjustment" than to integration.
Shortly after that speech, top civil rights leaders notified President John F. Kennedy that they intended to carry out a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28.
President Kennedy urged against the march, feeling that if violence should erupt, Congress would reject a comprehensive civil rights bill that he had just proposed. Northern senators shared the president's concern.
But Southern senators secretly hoped that violence would occur, believing that it would help to defeat the proposed law. In an attempt to discredit the leadership of the march, Southern senators publicized the fact that Bayard Rustin, its chief organizer, was a gay man.
The civil rights leadership ignored the entreaties to call off the march, and the attempted smear of Bayard Rustin was met with disdainful contempt.
On Aug. 28, the day that the March began, I was an Army first lieutenant stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington. I was assigned as legal adviser to a staff headed by a major general, with 500 soldiers under his command. Our duty was to protect the marchers and the city of Washington in case there was violence that the city police could not control.
The Army made unusual preparations. To ensure that no one got shot, the Army provided us only with unloaded handguns and rifles, although the rifles did have bayonets.
At about 9 a.m., little groups of marchers began to gather on the Washington Mall at the Lincoln Memorial. By early afternoon, the demonstrators had reached more than 250,000.
Movie stars and singers gathered on the steps of the memorial and provided entertainment. These included Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier and Sam Cooke, who sang a song that he had written, "A Change is Gonna Come."
A. Philip Randolph, the president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and his assistant Bayard Rustin were on the podium along with King, Whitney Young of the Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
Randolph spoke first. At the urging of the march leadership, John Lewis toned down his speech, but what remained was more than a little fiery.
Over the course of the march, our command staff hovered over the mall in helicopters. Viewing the march from the air, I saw a mighty mass of humanity. Their mere presence was a shout for jobs and freedom — now.
Their demands elevated my spirit beyond words. Proud to be black, proud to see my people saying freedom "now"! No more would we live under the roost of Jim Crow! A young black Army captain flew with us. He sat beside me, looking down upon the energetic and determined demonstrators. With tears in his eyes, he nudged me and said, "Are you feeling like I feel?" I nodded with enthusiasm.
A few minutes after we returned to our base, King came to the podium. We sat glued to a black and white television, listening to his immortal words. He spoke of a dream, no doubt born of the nightmare that all blacks had experienced living under Jim Crow, white supremacy, and racial discrimination. He dreamed of a time when black Americans would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Great March, I feel especially blessed to have been there and played a small role in the historic event.
Kenneth Lavon Johnson was an associate judge on the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and was a captain in the US JAG corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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