Hollywood Who's Who Marched With King in '63

Hollywood Who's Who Marched With King in '63

By Carl M. Cannon - August 29, 2013

Wednesday’s speeches commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington are already fading from memory, the security barriers at the National Mall have been removed, Oprah Winfrey and the other celebrities who spoke have returned to their day jobs.

Intending no disrespect to Oprah or to Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, or anyone else who took part this week, but the contingent of stars that came to D.C. in 1963 had to be seen to be believed.

In our time, Hollywood luminaries, reality TV performers, and famous-for-who-knows-what-reason celebrities are inescapable presences in American political life. Occasionally, they are coherent, and every once in a while, brave. Usually, they are following the herd. That was not the case in 1963, when a coterie of A-list stars boarded a “celebrity plane” in Los Angeles and came to Washington in support civil rights.

Harry Belafonte, acting in concert with Martin Luther King, helped to arrange it, and the multi-racial cast of musicians, actors, movie directors, and other performers who answered the call constituted a virtual Hall of Fame of the American arts.

Folk singer Joan Baez kicked off the program with a soulful rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights movement’s unofficial anthem. Peter, Paul, and Mary asked “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” and Odetta Holmes, a now nearly forgotten musical star, brought the audience to tears with her soaring hymn, “O Freedom.”

“If they ask you who you are,” she belted out, “tell them you’re a child of God.”

Josephine Baker, who’d come from her adopted France, also performed at the Lincoln Memorial. In its next-day coverage, appearing on this date 50 years ago, the New York Times quoted her before quoting Martin Luther King.

“You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you!” Baker told the crowd of 200,000. She added that she felt she was seeing a dream come true before her eyes. “This,” she added, “is the happiest day of my life.”

After Joan Baez sang, so did Bob Dylan. He was deeply committed to the movement and had recently written a ballad called “The Death of Emmett Till.” Ossie Davis performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, too, along with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. James Garner, who met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally seven years earlier, marched as well—holding hands on that day in solidarity with Diahann Carroll.

Just listing all the names of the celebrities who came to Washington for the 1963 civil rights march takes some doing. Writer James Baldwin came, along with baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, Hollywood producer Frank Mankiewicz, song and dance man Sammy Davis Jr., and actress Ruby Dee.

Many of the African-American members of Harry Belafonte’s posse, the great calypso singer included, had been politically active in civil rights for years. Among this crew were Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, famed bluesman Josh White, and Sidney Poitier, who that year was the first African-American movie star to win an Oscar for best actor.

Poitier was hardly the only leading man (or Academy Award winner) on the plane Belafonte chartered. Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward all came, as did Charlton Heston, who shined a bit brighter than the rest of the Hollywood crowd. He was taller than the others, sure, and he’d played Moses in the movies—but that wasn’t really it.

Heston had campaigned in 1956 for Stevenson and in 1960 for Kennedy. That was safe enough. But for those who made their living in the motion picture industry, the anti-communist congressional hearings in Washington and the purge of suspected party members in Hollywood had a deterrent effect on the political activities of filmmakers and actors. Yet at the very same time, a great movement was building in the late 1950s and into the early 1960s—and many of the nation’s biggest motion picture stars wanted to lend their fame and faces to the cause.

Charlton Heston was one of the first.

In May of 1961, Heston had picketed a segregated Oklahoma City lunch counter at a now-forgotten demonstration that was one of hundreds of such actions building up to the March on Washington. The day of the ’63 march, the U.S. Information Agency filmed a roundtable discussion with Heston, Belafonte, Poitier, Brando, and Baldwin. It’s worth watching, despite Belafonte’s long-windedness (and can be seen here, thanks to C-SPAN).

Asked why he is marching, Heston steals the scene.

“Two years ago, I picketed some restaurants in Oklahoma, but with that one exception -- up until very recently -- like most Americans I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties,” he says. “But like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now.”

In later years, “Chuck” Heston, as his intimates called him, would break with the Democratic Party over what he saw as its liberal excesses. He’d go on to campaign for his friend Ronald Reagan, and become a leading proponent of 2nd Amendment rights. Along the way, he’d be shunned and scorned by “liberals,” some of whom were not yet born when Heston was marching for freedom.

Heston himself liked to say he supported the rights of racial minorities before it was fashionable in Hollywood—and upon his 2008 death African-American scholar Earl Ofari Hutchinson concurred: “He did,” Hutchinson said, “and we honor him for his monumental contributions to the civil rights movement.”

A fancy funeral was held in a scenic Pacific Palisades Episcopal church and attended by some 300 people, many of them California luminaries. But a small vigil was also held in South Central Los Angeles, at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Boulevards. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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