John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship winner (2008), Builder Levy has photographed in New York City’s inner city communities where he was a New York City teacher of at-risk adolescents for 35 years; at civil rights and peace demonstrations in the 1960s and the new millennium; in Mongolia, Cuba, and other developing nations; and since 1968 to the present, has been visiting and photographing life in coalfield Appalachia. His work intertwines social documentary, street and art photography. Here, Levy shares his memories and a photo he took at the 1963 March on Washington.
When I got off the bus I was a little disoriented because it was almost too peaceful and relaxed. Yet crowded, full of people, mostly people of color, but people of every color, whichever way you looked. The crowds stretched from the Lincoln Memorial back to the Washington Monument. The signs read “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” I saw contingents with people wearing their labor union caps. Miraculously, I met my brother, Jay, there. He had come from out west, on his way home from a cross-country road trip he had made that summer. There were plenty of police—the media had warned of violence! But it was very peaceful. I had been inspired by Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King in the mid-fifties while I was still in junior high school in Brooklyn, New York. As I was entering Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I remember being inspired by the heroic Black students integrating Central High School—the Little Rock Nine, who were being escorted by the federal troops to Central High School through crowds of hate after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus had used state National Guardsmen to block them from entering days earlier. I had marched on Washington for integrated schools, in 1957. In support of the southern students picketing and boycotting Woolworth’s, we picketed Woolworth’s in New York City, in 1960.
That day in Washington, the signs read “For Jobs and Freedom.” I was walking around, looking for faces, groups, something that would help me find the meaning of the march. What was significant was its enormous size—more than a quarter-million, probably 300,000 people. Also significant to me was that it had such a strong labor union component of support. One of the main organizers was A. Phillip Randolph, organizer and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and founder and president of the Negro American Labor Council. The fact that the march had a broad coalition, a unity of all the major civil rights organizations, including SNCC and the NAACP, as well as SCLC, the Urban League, and CORE, was of great import also.
I was near the Lincoln Memorial. I tried listening to the speeches and songs. King would speak near the very end. Shortly before King delivered his speech, Mahalia Jackson began singing. I noticed a contingent from the South (where the current front lines of the freedom struggle were). I think it was an NAACP group from Atlanta, Georgia. Within the group, a young black woman wearing a dark kerchief on her head caught my eye. She was in the brilliant, bright, hot summer sunlight, standing out from, but still within and a part of, the crowd. I moved closer, composed and focused razor-sharp on the woman. Her face/gaze reflected for me the intensity of the long and continuing struggle, from the arrival of the first Africans sold into bondage in Jamestown in 1619, to Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, the Scottsboro Boys, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, the student sit-ins, in Greensboro, John Lewis, Medgar Evers! Her clasped hands seemed to offer an expression of hope.
A young white man, perhaps a student like me, was to the young woman’s left. A well-dressed black man in a hat and sport jacket was to the right with his back facing me. They, as well as the rest of the crowd behind the woman, gave her the context of the mass multiracial demonstration, but they did not need to be sharply focused.
Although I never did get much of a vantage point to get good crowd photographs of the historic march, this photograph captures for me the meaning of the March on Washington.