JFK tried to halt ’63 march


On Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the march, the civil rights leaders who met with JFK included (from left to right): Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lews, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the head of the American Jewish Congress, and A. Philip Randolph, leader of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

President Kennedy was hesitant to embrace the civil rights movement.

When the Kennedy administration learned of plans for what would become a historic march on Washington, “its first response was to pressure black leaders into canceling,” the BBC reports.

Kennedy asked civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, to the White House and told them that he did not want “a big show on the Capitol” because it would complicate his efforts to pass civil rights legislation.

Factors Kennedy considered, the BBC says, and precautions taken included:

  1. 1,340 demonstrations in more than 200 cities between May and late August in 1963
  2. Advice from Vice President Johnson: “Issues which are not settled by justice and fair play will sooner or later be settled by force and violence,” LBJ warned.
  3. The Washington police department was placed on its highest state of alert and planned for 72 potential disaster scenarios
  4. On the day of the march, D.C. was placed under virtual martial law. At Fort Bragg, 15,000 Special Forces troops, dubbed STRICOM, were placed on stand-by, ready to be airlifted at the first sign of trouble.

In the end, all the precautions weren’t necessary. As James Reston wrote in the Aug. 29, 1963, New York Times: “None of the dreadful things Washington feared came about. … There were fewer arrests than any normal day for Washington, probably because all the saloons and hootch peddlers were closed.”