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Sarah Unruh ’12

Retired professor reflects on historic march, 50 years later

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It was late August 1963, and Dwight and LaVonne Platt of North Newton and their young family were headed back to Kansas after a summer in coastal North Carolina. But there was a stop they needed to make first.

Platt, Bethel College professor emeritus of biology, had been teaching at the college for six years and was finishing Ph.D. studies, for which he needed a marine biology course. So he, LaVonne, 4½-year-old Kamala and 1-year-old Richard had spent the summer of 1963 in Beaufort, N.C., at Duke University’s marine lab.

The Platts already had a long-standing interest in civil rights issues. Dwight Platt’s ancestors had a stop on the Underground Railroad at their Illinois home in the mid-1800s. His mother, Selma Rich Platt Johnson, “was very active in interracial affairs in Newton,” he says. “She was interested in desegregation of restaurants and theaters.”

As a teenager, Platt had been part of an effort to desegregate the Newton municipal swimming pool. “We had interracial swimming parties, after hours,” he remembers.

So the Platts paid attention to news reports and to material from organizations they were involved with that told of a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” to be held Aug. 28, 1963.

What they read emphasized “the importance that this march be bi-racial,” Platt says.

“A former student of mine was living [with his family] near Washington. We called and asked if we could stay with them. So we did, and went to the March on Washington on our way back to Kansas.”

The friends didn’t go, however. Like many Washington residents, they were afraid of violence or other trouble surrounding the march. “They actually discouraged us from going,” Platt says. “Some people left Washington that day, and many businesses closed.”

But he and LaVonne went ahead, with Richard in a stroller, leaving Kamala behind to play with their friends’ son, although Platt thinks she may never have quite forgiven her parents for not taking her.

“We went first to the Washington Monument, where the marchers were to gather. There were people singing, to entertain the crowd, I suppose. Whenever a celebrity would show up, they would announce that, between songs. In the late morning, we started to march toward the Lincoln Memorial.”

When it came time to listen to the speakers on the memorial’s porch, Platt says, “We were up fairly close. There was a tree nearby and I remember some young guy getting up in the tree so he could see better.”

As Platt told a reporter from The Bethel Collegian, the student newspaper, about a month after the march, and as he still recalls today, he was impressed by how well-organized the march was.

“They had water stations, portable toilets, first-aid stations,” he says. “They had their own marshals, but they were not carrying weapons. Their instructions were that if someone got violent, they were simply to surround them and call for the police.”

But one lasting legacy of the March on Washington was its peacefulness. “It wasn’t an angry day,” Platt says.

Another thing that impressed him was “such a wide variety of people, not only in the crowd but on the platform.”

Of the estimated 250,000 marchers, about 60,000 were white. The speakers – in addition to, most famously, Martin Luther King Jr. – included Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle and national Catholic leader Mathew Ahmann; Eugene Carson Blake, representing the National Council of Churches; national Jewish leaders Rabbi Uri Miller and Rabbi Joachim Prinz; and labor leader Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.

Others were John Lewis, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, march organizer and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union; Floyd McKissick, chair of the Congress on Racial Equality (reading the statement of CORE president James Farmer, jailed after a protest in Louisiana); Whitney Young, Jr., president of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP; and civil rights organizer and nonviolent strategist Bayard Rustin.

“People think of this as ‘Martin Luther King’s March on Washington,’” Platt says, “but it was A. Philip Randolph’s march. He proposed it to Bayard Rustin, who wrote up a design. It was originally supposed to be three days long and include civil disobedience, but other organizers didn’t go for that.”

Randolph, in fact, had planned a similar march in 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually responded by issuing an executive order outlawing discrimination in the armed services, and the march was called off.

President John F. Kennedy was initially equally unenthusiastic about the march of August 1963 (the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation) but planners proceeded anyway.

Fifty years later, Platt considers what has changed.

“You can see it, looking around Newton,” he says. “It was [once] quite a segregated community. Now it’s not a hostile, or an enforced, segregation.

“The march changed the legal framework,” Platt says. It is credited with creating the political momentum that resulted in Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Now the challenge is to change cultural attitudes. One hopes that changing the laws will change the culture. But we still see racist attitudes and more blacks [than whites] unemployed, or paid lower, more blacks in prison.”

Platt’s younger sister, Zona Galle of North Newton, adds, “It’s both sad and encouraging that many young people now have no idea what happened in the past – they can’t imagine such a time. I think it’s good it’s being talked about now [in the 50th-anniversary year], to remember that this was only 50 years ago.”

Dwight Platt will talk about his memories of the March on Washington on the anniversary day, Aug. 28, in Bethel College’s weekly chapel service at 11 a.m.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.