James Blue’s minimal narration in The March disguises the fact that the film represents a rich array of people, places, and songs associated with the Civil Rights Movement. On this page, you can learn more about the sights and sounds of The March.
Characters in The March
James Blue (1930-1980), was an American filmmaker and alumnus of the University of Oregon. You can learn more details of his life and work in The Making of James Blue, or over at the James Blue Project.
Carl T. Rowan (1925-2000), had served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President John F. Kennedy and as US Ambassador to Finland before being appointed Director of the US Information Agency by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rowan served in this role until 1965, when he left government work and pursued private sector initiatives, establishing a reputation as a political commentator and author. He delivers the opening monologue in The March, which Lyndon B. Johnson requested to enhance the presidency’s public image and emphasize Johnson’s personal contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), was the 36th President of the United States. He served six terms in the House of Representatives as a Democratic Congressman from Texas before being elected to the Senate, where he quickly gained prominence. His rapport in the legislature made him a powerful figure in Washington, DC, so it was no surprise that John F. Kennedy chose him as his vice-presidential candidate for the 1960 presidential election. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (just three months after the March on Washington), Johnson assumed the presidency. While not shown in The March, President Johnson is still very much present in the film. The prologue to film (featuring Carl T. Rowan) was added at the request of the Johnson administration, which wanted to reassure viewers that Johnson supported the cause of the March on Washington. (Photo by Arnold Newman, White House Press Office, March 10, 1964, via Wikimedia Commons.)
A. Phillip Randolph (1889-1979), a labor and civil rights activist, contributed invaluable skill and leadership to the larger Civil Rights Movement in the United States. A founder of the first Black labor union in the nation, Randolph became a prominent lobbyist in the circles of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. His leadership in the March on Washington was a culmination of decades of organizing non-violent protests. Randolph appears throughout The March, giving speeches and fielding questions from reporters.
Joan Baez (1941-present), has been actively recording and touring as a musician and activist since 1960. In her long-spanning career, she has continued to perform folk music dedicated to those oppressed by economic, political, or social circumstances. Her appearance at the 1963 March on Washington came towards the beginning of her career. In recent years, Baez has been awarded honors from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Amnesty International, and the Grammy Hall of Fame. Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama invited Baez to perform “We Shall Overcome” in a memorial concert dedicated to music of the Civil Rights Movement held at the White House in 2010.
Odetta (1930-2008), the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” fashioned a career focused around African American folk music. After receiving classical training as a college student in Los Angeles, she moved to San Francisco and began exploring the folk music scene. Her career skyrocketed after the release of her first album in 1953, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. Throughout the remainder of the 1950s and 1960s, Odetta remained a strong voice of the Civil Rights Movement, promoting spirituals and other folk ballads that became staples of the decade. Her performance at the 1963 March on Washington came at the height of her career.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993), is considered the greatest operatic contralto of the 20th century. Because of racism, however, she initially struggled to gain popularity in America. She built up an illustrious career in Europe before eventually becoming a star in the United States, performing countless recitals across the country. In 1939 she famously sang a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the request of then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who ensured the gathered audience was racially integrated. She became the first Black individual to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1955. Her performance at the March on Washington was one of her last before retirement.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church known for its community outreach and organization. An executive committee member of the NAACP and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King worked tirelessly to promote racial equality through non-violent demonstrations, speeches, and writings. His first major demonstration, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, gained national attention and thrust Dr. King into the spotlight. He traveled countless miles across the nation giving talks and leading protests in pursuit of justice. A few months prior to his appearance at the March on Washington, Dr. King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which became a foundational manifesto in support of non-violent demonstration. (Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News and World Report, March 26, 1964, via Wikimedia Commons.)
The Eva Jessye Choir (named such in honor of its director, Eva Jessye) can be heard at the end of The March singing “We Shall Overcome.” First established as the Original Dixie Jubilee Choir, the group was the premiere choir of the day, performing worldwide, in cinema, and most famously as the chorus for the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. It was after this Broadway run that the group was renamed for its director (whom George Gershwin personally requested as chorusmaster for the show). The group served as the official choir of The March on Washington, one of its last major appearances before disbanding.
Reverend Edward S. Williams was assistant pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1959 to 1974. Under his tenure, community outreach, musical excellence, and youth engagement flourished. He is shown in The March praying with his congregation prior to their departure for Washington, DC.
Dr. Merritt A. Hedgeman was husband to Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a political activist and civil rights advocate based in New York City. Anna Hedgeman was heavily involved with the Commission of Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, recruiting nearly 40,000 Protestants from the council’s churches to march on Washington. Anna Hedgeman also served as executive director of the National Council for Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, a commission founded by A. Philip Randolph.
Dr. Merritt Hedgeman was a prominent conductor of black folk music and opera. He directed music at Riverside Church in New York City. This coupled with his wife’s connections made him a natural choice to conduct the choir formed by the National Council of Churches. The choir sang for events in New York City leading up to the March on Washington. Hedgeman can be seen in The March conducting the group outside a sandwich-packing operation prior the demonstration.
The National Council of Churches Choir was formed as a special ensemble to perform at events leading up to the March on Washington and was sponsored in part by the National Council of Churches. The ensemble was directed by Dr. Merritt A. Hedgeman and can be seen singing in The March as volunteers in New York City assemble lunches for the marchers.
Reverend Lawrence G. Campbell was a co-founder of Bibleway Church in Danville, Virginia in 1957. He soon became its leader, growing the church into an international network of over 250 churches known as the International Bibleway Church of Jesus Christ. After twelve years of service, Campbell stepped down from his position. He is recorded praying with his congregation in The March the night before the March on Washington.
Ossie Davis (1917-2000) was an actor, writer, director, and producer of both stage and cinema. Originally a Broadway performer, Davis made his film debut in No Way Out (1950) with Sidney Poitier. He went on to star in several films throughout the decade. In 1994 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, and he has received numerous nominations from the Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and Emmy Awards (including winning a Daytime Emmy for Finding Buck McHenry). Davis and his wife Ruby Dee (also an actor and author) were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. Davis can be heard in The March at several times giving announcements to the gathered crowds.
Not much is known about Geraldine Anderson. Her name is not recorded in many documents pertaining to The March or the March on Washington, nor is she shown in the film. She can be heard singing “We Shall Overcome” with the Eva Jessye Choir at the end of The March.
Landscapes in The March
The March depicts preparations for the historic March on Washington as they took place all over the United States in the days leading up to the event.
The March on Washington took place in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. In addition to the March, several other important events pertaining to the demonstration took place in this city. Press conferences, church gatherings, and more filled the days before and after the March on Washington. Conversations after James Blue’s The March was released took place in the White House.
The opening scenes of The March show a large contingent from Bethesda, Maryland, who have gathered before marching. The footage was taken in Bethesda prior to the March on Washington.
New York, New York
New Yorkers contributed massive amounts of people, resources, and organizational assistance to help make the March on Washington happen. Volunteers worked around the clock to prepare sandwiches for as many of the marchers as they could. Blue claims they made nearly 80,000 lunches to send with marchers from the city. The New York City branch of the National Council of Churches was a major contributor to the success of the movement.
Marchers from Danville, Virginia, are shown having arrived in Washington the night before the March. The Reverend Lawrence Campbell from Bibleway Church in Danville, Virginia, can be heard over marchers as they prepare for the next day. Founded in 1957, Bibleway serves as a source of missionary outreach and community engagement, and it has grown into the parent church of an international network of Christian churches. Danville was the site of violent episode in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. On June 10, 1963, sixty high school students who had marched to the Danville’s municipal building to protest segregation were met with police who used high-pressure hoses and nightsticks on them.
Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi
Among other cities, Blue mentions that marchers came from Birmingham and Jackson. These cities’ distance to Washington is equated to the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to give international viewers better perspective on how far marchers traveled.
Several marchers came from Cleveland, Ohio, which also happened to be the main headquarters of the National Council of Churches in the United States. The National Council provided the choir and personnel from New York City.
Chicago is mentioned in connection to Cleveland, Ohio, as both are roughly the same distance to Washington as Buenos Aires, Argentina, is to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. James Blue made comparisons like this to help international viewers grasp the long distances that marchers traveled.
Los Angeles, California
Several scenes in The March show Reverend Edward S. Williams of Los Angeles, California, preaching to his congregation at Holman United Methodist Church. Holman UMC was founded in 1945 to serve the Black community of Los Angeles, and it is still active in community outreach to this day.
San Francisco, California
In his narration in The March, James Blue mentions San Francisco along with Los Angeles, California, as examples of how far marchers traveled to reach Washington, DC. He compares the distance between California and DC to the distance between Moscow, Russia, and Bombay (Mumbai), India.
Music of The March
Aside from Blue’s narration and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, much of the dialogue in The March takes the form of song. In addition to performances by well-known musicians at the March on Washington itself, Blue depicts marchers from all over the country raising their voices in song as they make their way to Washington.
Below, you can learn more about two of the songs in The March and browse the full lyrics of all the songs in the film.
“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
The spiritual “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” has a rich history within the civil rights era despite relative obscurity compared to spirituals like “We Shall Overcome.” The song was originally known as “Gospel Plow” and “Hold On” before being reworked by civil rights activist and musician Alice Wine in the 1950s. The musical structure of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” can take several forms, as is common for spirituals. Traditionally, the first part of each verse is sung by a leader, with the second half (“keep your eyes on the prize / hold on, hold on”) sung in response by the chorus. Alternatively, the leader may sing the entire piece with the chorus echoing each time the leader sings “hold on,” joining in wherever they feel comfortable. This flexibility allows groups of all expertise levels to learn the song without too much work. The version sung in The March includes a verse about the FBI investigating hate crimes against African American citizens. Improvised lyrics are also quite common when singing spirituals, and thus it is no surprise that the leader of the marchers includes a verse relevant to current events.
The placement of this spiritual at the beginning of the documentary has several implied messages. Young men and women turn side to side learning what comes next and listening to the sounds being made. One watches as individuals gradually learn the song from others around them. This scene is like a summary of the events leading into the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; individual groups reach out, communicate, and learn to speak together with one voice.
In addition to this, the original lyrics of the piece speak to those who are persecuted, discriminated against, and oppressed. The opening phrase, “Paul and Silas bound in jail,” refers to the Biblical apostles Paul and Silas, who were imprisoned for preaching Christianity. The symbol of the Gospel Plow is also important to this spiritual. It refers to the holy work of those seeking what is good and right. These allusions in context of The March highlight the buildup and hard work that culminates in the March on Washington, framing the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a metaphorical earthquake that will “shake the chains” of oppression off all who march for freedom.
“We Shall Overcome”
“We Shall Overcome” is perhaps the most iconic spiritual of the civil rights movement, quickly becoming the anthem of marchers, protesters, and activists worldwide. The song itself is incredibly easy to teach to new singers, which may contribute to its popularity. “Verses” consist of a repeated phrase of no more than 5 syllables. In terms of range, the song sits quite comfortably on the voice, meaning even the least confident singer can manage this song. The slow tempo also allows leaders to announce the words of the upcoming verse, which makes the piece amenable to improvised lyrics.
Activists Zilphia Horton and Pete Seeger promoted the song in their own time. Horton was a folk culture specialist and activist who learned the song while picketing with tobacco farm laborers. After adding verses and changing a few of the words, Horton taught the piece to acclaimed folk musician Pete Seeger. Seeger is credited with the changing “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome,” the lyrics popularized today.
“We Shall Overcome” is featured nearly six times in The March, all in different contexts: from marchers singing in the night to gospel choirs singing in harmony, a rich array of vocalists lend their voices to Blue’s film. The recurring use of this song makes sense as the intended international audience would instantly recognize this quintessential piece of music. Blue also uses this piece to exemplify how firmly united the marchers are even with such diversity. Cameras swivel left and right to show massive crowds all holding hands and belting the song at the top of their voice while marching, contrasted with close-ups on choir members singing delicately during preparatory activities. No matter their race, gender, place of origin, or class, every single person in The March clearly knows this song well. In the last minutes of The March, “We Shall Overcome” plays in several layers: the marchers sing together, an organ is superimposed over the film, and vocalist Geraldine Anderson is featured. Blue does this to musically represent the overwhelming, overlapping emotions after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. The song becomes more insistent with the renewed energy of the marchers: they shall overcome, and someday is looking closer and closer.