Kennedy White House had Jitters Ahead of 1963 March on Washington

By David Matthews CNN | 8/28/2013, 8:35 a.m.

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.

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.