No one was more nervous than the Kennedy administration, as the memoirs later published by veterans of the White House and the Justice Department make clear. What sometimes is forgotten in the glow of King’s uplifting words is that this was a protest rally — and protests do at times get out of hand.
The frustration was great because hopes for civil rights had been raised so high by John F. Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric and by his decision to name his brother Robert as attorney general. The top ranks of the Justice Department were filled with civil rights advocates, but on Capitol Hill, the traditional opponents were slow-walking every bill, with scarcely an audible objection from the White House.
What became apparent, as the masses moved slowly along the Reflecting Pool and gathered before the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was that if this was a mob, it was the most benign mob in history.
Even before a word was spoken — let alone the eloquent words that have echoed down through history — it had become absolutely evident from the people themselves that achieving civil rights would be the way to heal, not damage, the country.
I went back to the Star wondering what it was we had been afraid of. And I’ve remembered this many times since, when people have tried to teach us to fear certain things, such as someone else’s marriage or place of worship.