WASHINGTON -- The current remembrance of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of half a century ago has rightly focused on Martin Luther King's epic "I Have Dream" speech, which prophesied racial progress that at the time many saw as a pipedream.
Those of us who were in the nation's capital on that glorious summer day of August 28, 1963 were overwhelmed not only by the huge turnout estimated at 200,000 souls or more. The peaceful and even joyous mood of the mixed-race crowd cast off spoken and unspoken fears of that day that it might end in riot and bloodshed.
As a reporter based at the Pentagon at the time, I was exiled across the Potomac and obliged to watch via television. A jam-packed audience lining both sides of the Lincoln Memorial's long pool stretching almost to the Washington Monument stood mesmerized by the speech and the moment.
Another television observer of the historic day was President John F. Kennedy, keeping a respectful -- and politically comfortable -- distance from the actual site. He and his White House political aides were uncertain and ambiguous about the march itself, and how it might affect Kennedy's bid for his civil rights legislation before Congress.
Although the Lincoln Memorial was only a few minutes' limousine ride away, Kennedy chose to stay away from what turned out to be one of the most celebrated events in the city's history. After the speeches and meeting briefly with civil rights leaders at the White House, he issued a statement rather mildly observing that the event's participants "deserve our appreciation for the detailed preparations that have made it possible for the orderly manner in which it has been conducted."
Kennedy noted that "although this summer has seen remarkable progress in translating civil rights from principles into practices, we have a very long way yet to travel." He added that "one cannot help but be impressed with the deep fervor and the quiet dignity" that characterized the march. He pledged to continue his efforts to increase unemployment and end discrimination among all those still called Negroes in common and official discourse.
But Kennedy's physical absence from the event also spoke to his cautious approach to the potentially explosive issue of civil rights, which three months later was interrupted by his assassination in Dallas. Ironically, that tragic event produced the elevation to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson of Texas, a son of the South, with unpredictable consequences.
But Johnson, whose vice presidency was marked by uneasiness and even ridicule among the JFK staff and particularly on the part of brother Robert, the attorney general, soon picked up John Kennedy's civil rights bill. In memorably urging Congress to "let us continue," he brought the 1964 Civil Rights Act into being as a cornerstone of achieving King's dream.
In one of American history's most fateful turns, King himself was assassinated in the course of a labor strike in Memphis in 1968, followed only weeks later by the assassination of Robert Kennedy as he sought the presidency to recapture the office from what many Kennedyites regarded as LBJ's usurpation.
King himself provided the ultimate irony in his final speech the night before he was gunned down in Memphis, prophetically observing of his "dream": "I don't know what will happen now, but it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I won't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land."
Fifty years after he first spoke of that dream, a memorial to King stands not far from the site of that speech. It is in part in recognition of the triumph of the nonviolence he preached and practiced -- with the ultimate support of John Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, and a reluctant nation that eventually bought into the dream of racial coexistence, if not yet perfect harmony.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun