President John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in May 1963.

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Wednesday marks 50 years since the March on Washington

The historic event culminated with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

President Kennedy thought the march would hurt his proposed Civil Rights Act

He eventually abandoned his opposition to the event

CNN  — 

On a day when so many Americans felt joy, peace and life-long inspiration from the March on Washington, then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was so nervous he could barely sit down.

“Pacing around the room,” described Jack Rosenthal, Kennedy’s deputy press secretary on August 28, 1963. “The attorney general (was) off and on the phone, talking I presume to march organizers or to the White House.”

Rosenthal was with Kennedy inside the “command center” that Justice Department officials used to monitor the march inside the Justice Department headquarters.

This week marks 50 years since the march and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech. While the event has been analyzed by countless historians, the Kennedy administration’s relationship with the march wasn’t so easily understood.

“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march 50 years ago.

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Yet President John F. Kennedy and his attorney general brother knew the march had to be successful, so they assigned a small staff of Justice Department officials to help.

That help was so considerable that the head of the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department at the time, Burke Marshall, would later say about the march: “The person who organized it, as a matter of fact, was the attorney general.”

Critics of the march accused the Kennedy administration of being too involved.

After referring to it as the “Farce on Washington,” Malcolm X would write in his autobiography, “there wasn’t a single logistics aspect uncontrolled. The marchers had been instructed to bring no signs. … They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. … Yes, I was there. I observed that circus.”

So, how did the Kennedy administration go from being against the march to being so involved that they were accused of controlling it? Did President Kennedy and his brother help, hinder or co-opt the march?

The answer lies somewhere in between.

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‘He thought it would be chaos’

When President Kennedy first heard of a proposed march on Washington, he wasn’t exactly thrilled.

It was June 1963 and Kennedy was meeting with civil rights leaders at the White House, including 23-year-old John Lewis, who had just been elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“It was a very moving meeting,” Lewis said. “The president was deeply concerned about what was happening in the American South. So the president wanted to know what could be done.”

Then A. Philip Randolph, the elderly labor leader revered by many in the civil rights movement, announced to the president that there would be a march on Washington.

“You can tell by the very body language of President Kennedy … he started moving and twisting in his chair. And his facial expression – he just thought it would be chaos,” recalled Lewis.

“And the president sort of said, ‘Well, I think we’re gonna have some problems.’”

Despite being in favor of civil rights, Kennedy’s reason for opposing the march was simple:

“The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz.

Kennedy explained his concerns to the civil rights leaders in his office.

“We want success in the Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol,” Kennedy is quoted as saying. “Some of these people are looking for an excuse to be against us, and I don’t want to give any of them a chance to say, ‘Yes I’m for the bill but I am damned if I will vote for it a the point of a gun.’

“The only effect is to create an atmosphere of intimidation - and this may give some members of Congress an out.”

But the civil rights leaders would not be discouraged.

The March on Washington planning committee set up an office on 130th Street in Harlem in summer 1963 and began the arduous task of trying to contact, recruit and deliver thousands of people to attend the march.

“When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place,” said Horowitz, who was in charge of organizing transportation for the event.

Holmes Norton, who helped Horowitz with transportation planning, said march organizers “heard nothing but complaints from the Kennedy administration at the time.”

“They didn’t say, ‘Welcome to Washington, this is what I need. If you come to Washington, this will help me get the bill passed,’” she said, referring to Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Act. “It was quite the contrary.”

But as the Kennedys began to see the need for a successful and peaceful march, attitudes began to shift.

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

The March on Washington organizers envisioned a two-day event that would take marchers around the White House and then to the National Mall, Horowitz recalled.

But she said the Kennedy administration squashed that idea.

“The White House absolutely did not want that to happen,” Horowitz said. “And they were able to convince people not to do it.”

As a result, the march ended up only being one day, and marchers traversed the mall, not past the White House or Capitol Hill.

The White House had moved past its initial opposition to the march. Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department started engaging the march planners, rather than trying to stymie them.

“They kept a watchful eye on the planning of the march,” said Lewis, one of the “Big Six” original leaders behind the march. “They stayed in touch with the (march) leadership.”

The march leaders, in an attempt to broaden the appeal of the event and widen the scope of its leadership, added four white leaders, changing the “Big Six” to the “Big Ten.” They included representatives of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, and a labor leader.

Staunch civil rights advocate and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther was recruited by the White House “to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action,” wrote Charles Euchner in his book “Nobody Turn Me Around,” about the historic march.

“And so he did.”

By this point, Kennedy had come around so far on the march that, according to march planner Courtland Cox, the president figured if you can’t beat them, join them.

“There was a proposal on the table that Kennedy speak to the March on Washington,” said Cox. “And (march organizer) Bayard (Rustin) knew this would have been a disaster because it would’ve been taken over by (Kennedy) just because he’s president.

“It would’ve been Kennedy’s march.”

So, Cox said Rustin and he excused themselves from that particular meeting and took a walk to the bathroom. Clearly flummoxed about the problem, Rustin took a sip from his back-pocket flask and came up with an idea on the fly.

“And Bayard got back into the meeting and he literally made this up,” Cox recalled. “He said that he heard … if the president spoke the Negroes were going to stone him.”

After that, the idea of Kennedy speaking at the march was never considered.

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‘He was like a beaming, proud father

Jack Rosenthal remembers the buzz of activity inside the Justice Department’s room 5110, Robert Kennedy’s office, on August 28, 1963.

“That was the command center,” said Rosenthal, who was the department’s assistant press officer at the time.

The attorney general was nervous that a disastrous or violent march would hurt his brother’s civil rights legislation, and the civil rights cause in general.

Justice Department officials were relying on various eyewitness reports to feed information back to them.

“Younger people should realize this is long before cell phones, e-mail or texting,” Rosenthal said. “The only way to communicate was by a few precious walkie-talkies or by making personal observations and then hoofing it back to the Justice Department.”

One of those on the other end of the walkie-talkies was RFK’s assistant, William vanden Heuvel. He was part of a team of “rovers” dispatched by the Justice Department.

“I was close up by the memorial itself, walking that area, so I had a pretty good overview of the program as it proceeded,” vanden Heuvel recalled.

“You know, (to) make sure things didn’t get difficult or things didn’t go in a bad direction. And if they did, just try to intervene.”

This was far from the only precaution the federal government took that day. Bars were closed, the National Guard was on standby: The government was prepared for the worst.

“They had a draft drawn up declaring martial law,” said Roger Mudd, who anchored the event for CBS.

Every little detail was analyzed, including John Lewis’ speech, the contents of which had been released to the press the night before.

“I received a note from Bayard Rustin, saying, in effect, that there was some concern about my speech,” Lewis recalled. “Archbishop (Patrick) O’Boyle, who’s very close to the Kennedy family, said he will refuse to give the invocation if I didn’t change the speech.”

Lewis’ original draft questioned which side the federal government was on, which would have greatly embarrassed the Kennedy administration.

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“The Kennedy administration was using the archbishop as a conduit to express its views,” march planner Courtland Cox said.

O’Boyle wasn’t the only one to apply pressure to Lewis that day to get him to change his speech.

Reuther, the UAW leader who had been working on behalf of the Kennedys to steer the march to their liking, also joined in denouncing Lewis’ proposed speech.

“If John Lewis feels strongly that he wants to make this speech, he can go someplace else and make it,” Reuther recalled later. “But he has no right to make it here because if he tries to make it, he destroys the integrity of our coalition.”

So after more cajoling from A. Philip Randolph, Lewis and Cox made the necessary changes to his speech on a small typewriter underneath the Lincoln Memorial.

Reuther then called O’Boyle to inform him that the changes were made, and government vehicles were sent to get the bishop through the crowds and to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“I never saw a bishop look so good in my life,” Reuther quipped.

Even if Lewis’ speech hadn’t been changed, there is reason to believe no one would have heard its more fiery contents anyway. The Kennedy administration had the ultimate trump card, and perhaps its most calculating plan in place that day: control of the sound system’s on-off switch.

After the final speech by King, those hunkered down in the Justice Department command center in room 5110 didn’t relax, despite the fact that there were no outbreaks of violence.

“When the speaking stopped and people started to disperse, there was still the danger of some spark being lit as people were leaving,” Rosenthal said

Simultaneously, in another part of Washington, President Kennedy was congratulating the march leaders on a near-flawless event. He couldn’t help but already declare the day a success.

“After the March on Washington was over, President Kennedy had invited us back down to the White House,” Lewis said. “He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us. He was like a beaming, proud father. He was so pleased. So happy that everything had gone so well.”

President Kennedy even had a message for King after his historic speech: “(Kennedy said) ‘And you had a dream,’” added Lewis.

Listen to audio of JFK’s meeting with march leaders

President Kennedy’s assassination three months after the march raised fears that the civil rights movement would stall, but the next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. In 1968, assassins would claim the lives of King and Robert Kennedy.

As the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which paved the way for an end to segregationist laws, Rosenthal reflected on the sometimes contentious and evolving relationship the Kennedy brothers had with the march and concluded, “The civil rights movement would not have been as successful when it was, had it not been for the work of the Kennedy administration.”