Peace Corps History: In 1963 Peace Corps Volunteers Were Forbidden to Attend Martin Luther King’s March on Washington

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As I compile stories to add to the Peace Corps Library, I often come across forgotten stories of volunteers over the years. Here’s a story that provides an interesting side note to Peace Corps history and the civil rights movement that may come as a surprise to many in the Peace Corps community.

In August 1963, future Peace Corps Volunteers were in training in Washington DC at Georgetown University to go to Turkey at the same time that the “March on Washington” was organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech advocating racial harmony at the Lincoln Memorial.

Volunteers in the training group were warned by their supervisors not to attend the March on Washington. According to volunteers Susan and Gene Paslov, volunteers were told not to participate because the Peace Corps officials including Director Sargent Shriver thought there might be violence with such large crowds. Troops were standing by just outside the city, but were never needed. The Paslovs ignored the directive, and joined the march hearing some of the oratorical highlights of the 20th century, from Martin King’s now-familiar “Dream” speech to Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over.” “There was no violence, only mutual respect.”  Here is their story:

“On Aug. 28, 1963, my wife Susan and I were standing on the Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. It was sweltering; the heat oppressive. But the gentle sway of 250,000 people, spread out on both sides of the reflecting pool as far as the eye could see, gave a sense of calm.”

“Susan and I made our way to the speakers’ platform by the Lincoln Memorial and found some shade among those holding CIO and AF of L signs,” according to Gene Paslov, later Nevada’s superintendent of schools. “It was a sea of humanity that had a calming effect on a nation caught in the midst of racial turmoil.”

“The crowd was amazing. We had never seen so many people in one place — official estimates of 200,000 African-Americans and 50,000 whites were probably low. Men, women and children of all races, sometimes holding hands, sometimes singing together. filled the area between the two monuments with harmonious sounds. It was a sea of humanity that had a calming effect on a nation caught in the midst of racial turmoil. The sight and sounds were spectacular on that day in August of 1963.”

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Toward early evening the keynote speaker, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., began his address. He mesmerized the crowd. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stood in rapt anticipation. The Rev. King immediately caught the crowd’s attention: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation shall rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed: We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

“It’s a measure of how much things have changed that the Kennedy administration was so nervous about the march—troops were stationed outside the city—and anxious to keep those in one of its signature programs away from an event that had many detractors,” says Dennis Myers adding that it was a mark of a forceful generation that the Paslovs made their own decision. “That generational daring probably helped lead the Paslovs and many other early volunteers into the new Peace Corps, which turned 50 years old this month.”


References:

News Review. “Peace Corps Turns Fifty Today” March 10, 2011.
Nevada Appeal. “47 years ago today, Rev. King gave us all hope for a better America” by Dr. Eugene T. Paslov. August 29, 2010