Yohuru Williams is a professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and the author of several books, including Teaching Beyond the Textbook. He is the former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Michael G. Long is the author and editor of several books on civil rights history. Williams and Long co-wrote the children’s book Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Black Freedom Fighter, and also shared their expertise on Robinson in Ken Burns’s documentary on the barrier-breaking athlete. In their new middle grade book, More Than a Dream: The Radical March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—written 60 years after this momentous event—the duo explores the protest’s radical roots and the long-ignored role of Black women organizers. We asked Williams and Long to discuss their research and writing process, and the importance of recognizing echoes of the past in contemporary events.
Michael G. Long: My friend! After all those early-morning phone calls, all those late-night Zoom sessions, we’re about to march into the world with our new book.
Yohuru Williams: I’m pumped. It’s a powerful story.
Long: Who knew? When I was a student, even in high school, I knew next to nothing about the march. I didn’t even know its name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Anyway, thanks for coming up with the idea. Of the two of us, you’re the big idea guy.
Williams: I might’ve come up with the idea, but we both marched forward with it. As I remember our early chats, we were both disappointed that the march is usually reduced to Dr. King’s dream, though we understood that.
Long: We did. King’s speech was the emotional highpoint of the day. Even the militant activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—who thought the march lacked in militancy—had tears running down their cheeks. I still get chills when I watch replays of it. No doubt, it’s one of the greatest speeches in world history.
Williams: And that gets to our challenge, right? Our challenge was to pull the lens back from that amazing moment and show what else was happening on March Day. What happened before Dr. King’s speech? What happened after it? It turns out that the march was much more than a dream. It was a demand. A demand for jobs. A demand for desegregation. A demand for jobs and freedom now!
What was your favorite part as we pulled back the lens?
Long: Probably researching information about the demand for economic justice. One of the march’s demands was for a national minimum wage of two dollars per hour. That translates to about $19 in today’s market. I love that fact because it shows just how radical the march’s two main planners were. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were both fervent democratic socialists who made sure that the march demanded jobs with decent wages. What about you? What was your favorite part?
Williams: Learning about the hidden voices that day—especially the voices of student activists. March organizers discouraged young activists from attending, but they came by the busloads. Three friends even hitchhiked together, without adults, from Gadsden, Alabama. On March Day, the students bore witness to all the suffering they endured when facing snarling police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses in their local fights for civil rights. They didn’t have a speaking slot at the Lincoln Memorial, but they were at the vanguard of the Black freedom movement.
Black women were, too, and their voices were also hidden at the march. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Dorothy Height, and Pauli Murray, all of them powerful leaders, had pleaded for a woman—one woman—to be one of the main speakers, but the all-male Big Ten denied the request. I like to think that wouldn’t happen again today.
Long: Me, too. I think one of the most inspirational parts of our book is the section on the women’s fight for their rightful place on March Day. Ironically, they lost the battle to a group of men fighting for equality and justice. The dissonance in that section of the book could not be louder than it is. Did anything else surprise you?
Williams: The recurring theme of police brutality. At the march, Rita Moreno—the star of West Side Story—told reporters that she was disappointed that President Kennedy’s civil rights bill did not address police brutality. Actor Marlon Brando compared local police officers in Alabama to German Nazis in World War II. Then there was the great John Lewis, who used his fiery speech to denounce the federal government for not defending young activists from racial violence.
Long: Just to add a bit more, I was surprised to learn that the march was designed to commemorate three people who had died because of their civil rights work—including Medgar Evers. I don’t believe anyone mentioned their names during the Lincoln Memorial program, but if you looked hard, as you and I did, you could see small ways that they were commemorated.
Williams: The topics of police brutality and race-related violence demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the march, right? More than a dream suspended in history, the march was a demand for the justice that still eludes us.
I hope our readers will be inspired to think about the ways that the march is as relevant today as it was in 1963. After all, we’re still struggling against police brutality. We’re still trying to secure Black voting rights. We’re still fighting for decent schools, homes, and jobs. We do not yet have the economic and racial justice that the march planners demanded.
We have a long way to go. And so, I hope our readers will also be inspired to think about ways that they can claim their power, just as the marchers did, and march our nation forward, to a time and place where we can finally join Dr. King and say, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
More Than a Dream: The Radical March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by Yohuru Williams and Michael G. Long. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21.99 Aug. 29 ISBN 978-0-374-39174-4