ON the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the names of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other top civil-rights leaders are prominent in news stories and public discussions.
But let’s hear it also for the volunteers who helped plan the Aug. 28, 1963, protest to demand equal rights in education, housing, employment and voting rights. Local civil-rights advocates worked in their respective communities for months setting up transportation, food and other basics.
Errol Alexander was one of those unsung heroes. The Tacoma resident was in his early 20s when he was elected president of the Sandusky, Ohio, chapter of the NAACP.
He and other organizers hoped to convince 50,000 people to travel to the nation’s capital. They hoped that maybe another 25,000 living in the Washington, D.C.,-area could be compelled to join in at the last minute.
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Instead, 250,000 gathered in the sweltering heat on the National Mall to press for equality and to bear witness to King’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The logistics for a large crowd were daunting enough, but Alexander and other organizers also had to iron out concerns about potential violence.
They went over the nonviolent tactics championed by King. They trained marchers how to cover their heads to protect against thrown objects or a police officer’s baton. Marchers were instructed to wear suits, ladies to wear hats.
“We wanted to show the world that we were just ordinary folks telling Congress we had had enough,” Alexander says.
March planners suspected the FBI might plant agents in the crowd. The agency, led then by J. Edgar Hoover, had accused King, other civil-rights leaders and the movement itself of being parts of a communist plot.
People were encouraged to have change in case they needed to find a public pay phone.
Organizers carried lists of names of attorneys and local places to run to if there was trouble.
The day turned into the most powerful and enduring image of the civil-rights struggle, thanks to people both extraordinary and ordinary.
In the decades since, Alexander became a successful business owner and a father of eight children. He mentors young professionals and published a novel about an African-American man making his way in America during the 1950s through the 1980s.
Racial disparities in poverty, homeownership rates, household income and wealth argue compellingly that the struggle to achieve King’s dream continues. It is being waged by leaders, both prominent and unknown, working quietly in their respective communities.