The race riot that never was: When Martin Luther King led 250,000 blacks to Washington 30 years ago, panic gripped Kennedy and his men. Nick Bryant has uncovered details of their elaborate preparations

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON was stifling in the heat of a humid August afternoon. Martin Luther King, standing before his audience, his back to the Lincoln Memorial, pushed aside the speech drafted in his motel room the previous night and launched extemporaneously into the 'I Have a Dream' sequence.

In his booming baritone voice, King described the grim realities of racial discrimination and revealed his dream of a country where freedom would ring 'from every mountainside'. His frame shook as he spoke finally of a nation where 'black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last] Free at last] Thank God almighty, we are free at last]' '

August 28 1963 - the day of the march on Washington - was the first time that President John F Kennedy had heard one of King's speeches in full, and he confided to an aide that until that afternoon he had never fully appreciated the meaning of the civil rights movement. Throughout his political career he had seen civil rights as a policy issue to manage and manipulate rather than to champion.

As President he enacted a series of minor reforms, but sidelined more substantive proposals, fearing that he would alienate Southern white opinion and aggravate powerful Southern Congressmen on Capitol Hill. By 1963 Kennedy's relationship with the civil rights movement had become strained. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet a delegation of black leaders at the White House when the march on Washington had finished.

Impressed by King's soaring oratory, he greeted the group with a cheery 'I have a dream' and shuffled them through into the Cabinet room for milk and sandwiches. Much to the President's relief, the march had been an unmitigated success: it had reasserted the leadership of moderate black leaders and reaffirmed the principal of non-violent direct action.

Yet it could have been very different. The march organisers never had an inkling of just how fearful Kennedy had been that their protest would degenerate into widespread rioting on the capital's streets.

The march was organised at a time when it seemed that moderate black leaders, such as King and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, were about to be usurped by a new generation of radicals, including Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The efficacy of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent direct action - upon which the civil rights movement had been based - was being questioned. Disenchantment with a society that denied blacks equal access to schools, restaurants, jobs and even the vote, was spilling over into violent confrontations between police and demonstrators in both North and South.

The escalation of racial tension in the summer of 1963 stemmed largely from protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that spring. King had launched demonstrations aimed at desegregating the city's lunch counters. This brought him into direct confrontation with Eugene 'Bull' Connor, head of Birmingham's police force and one of the South's most intransigent politicians. In early May, following the bombing of the motel where King was staying, the city erupted into the fiercest rioting the US had seen since the Civil War. The local police lost control of large sections of the city and Birmingham Mayor Art Haynes warned of 'anarchy and revolution'.

In the Oval Office on 12 May, President Kennedy, his brother Robert (who as Attorney General was responsible for the administration's civil rights policy), and their coterie of advisers met to discuss the mounting racial crisis. Bobby Kennedy gave this bleak assessment: 'The feelings of the Negroes generally and the reports we get from other cities - not just in the South - is that this could trigger off a good deal of violence around the country now, with Negroes saying they've been abused for all these years and they're going to start following the ideas of the Black Muslims.'

At a meeting on 20 May, after a week of widespread demonstrations, Bobby Kennedy warned again: 'The Negroes are getting mad for no reason at all. They want to fight. They want to fight white people . . . . These Negroes are all mad and they're all over the country.'

Reports filed by Justice Department lawyers and FBI G-Men confirmed that racial tension may spill over into a bloody race war in some Southern communities. One White House staffer observed the country was 'on the verge of civil war'.

Such was Kennedy's concern that he decided to introduce a far-reaching civil rights bill to Congress. In addition, he began finally to champion civil rights from the White House. On 12 June, he delivered a dramatic address on national television in which he noted that the need to grant blacks full citizenship was 'as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution'.

A week later, against the continuing background of widespread disorder, King told Kennedy about the intention to hold a mass demonstration at at Capitol Hill in mid-August, which had been planned by civil rights leaders ahead of the President's newly announced legislation.

KENNEDY personally requested the organisers to call off the demonstration. When they refused, he instructed members of his staff to take control of the march organisation to guard against violence.

The venue of the march was changed from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial and the timing brought forward by two hours to ensure that demonstrators dispersed before nightfall. The administration also intervened in a local railroad dispute to ensure that marchers would not be stranded in Washington overnight, and it banned the sale of alcohol in the city for the first time since Prohibition.

The march leaders were equally keen for the rally to vindicate the strategy of non-violent action. One thousand 'guardians' were trained in crowd control, 'bus captains' were to ensure that demonstrators returned home on the same buses as they arrived, and pamphlets cautioned against the use of alcohol.

Speakers on the day were instructed to withdraw inflammatory passages from their speeches. When John Lewis, the young leader of the Students' Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, rehearsed a speech that was fiercely critical of administration policy, he was instructed to change it. Justice Department lawyers threatened that if he refused they would pull the plug on the public address system.

Yet even with all these precautions in place, the Pentagon and city authorities mobilised an enormous military and civilian force to restore order in the event of rioting. More than 2,500 National Guardsmen, firemen and police reservists were deputised, augmenting the 1,900 policemen already assigned to the march. A 4,000-strong task force was put on alert on the outskirts of the capital and 30 helicopters were flown in to provide a rapid airlift capability. A 15,000-strong force was placed on stand-by in North Carolina ready to be airlifted to Washington. Not since the Second World War had Washington seen a comparable military build-up.

Seven hundred and fifty medical personnel were placed on special alert, 350 beds set aside for emergencies, and elective surgery in all of Washington's hospitals was cancelled. Government departments were closed, and local businesses were warned to shut their premises and to remove stock in order to guard against looting.

Presidential proclamations ordering the immediate introduction of troops were signed as a further precaution and a senior administration official remained all day at the military command post with an open line to the White House.

But Washington was calm on 28 August 1963, and the military force that Kennedy had assembled remained largely redundant. Instead of scenes of violence being transmitted around the world, viewers saw a carpet of placard-waving demonstrators flanking the half-mile Mall between the Washington Memorial and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They heard Joan Baez sing 'Blowin' in the Wind', and watched Bob Dylan join her on the platform to sing a ballad for Medgar Evers, a black activist murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. They saw Marlon Brando appear on stage brandishing an electric cattleprod used by police in Gadsden, Alabama, to herd civil rights demonstrators.

And, most of all, they saw the image that remains lodged in the memories of millions: - Martin Luther King speaking of his dream for a new America. A dream that continues to inspire many black Americans, but which many have yet to see fulfilled.

The writer has just completed a doctoral thesis at Balliol College, Oxford, on the presidency of John F Kennedy.

(Photograph omitted)