Living the Dream: Eleanor Holmes Norton

The D.C. congressional delegate helped plan the historic March on Washington.

Posted: 08/24/2013 11:08 AM EDT

For Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, the summer of 1963 was a grand adventure in justice. She spent the first half of it in Mississippi working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to develop a prototype for Freedom Summer voter registration training workshops scheduled for the following year.

Then she got the call. The Yale University law school student was summoned to New York to assist Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March on Washington.

"He was the only person in America who could have organized such an event. There had been no mass marches in memory or the expertise and tradition of the kinds of marches that we now do routinely," Norton told BET.com.

She spent the next six weeks or so working day and night from a Harlem brownstone alongside Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders of the time. Her duties ranged from speaking locally to encourage labor unions and others to attend the march to working on the nuts and bolts of how to get people to Washington.

Life had sparked Norton's interest in civil rights early on.

"I am a third-generation Washingtonian," she says proudly, "born and raised in a segregated city and attended a segregated school that was only integrated because of Brown v. Board of Education the storied Dunbar High School."

Norton was "more than ready," she says, for the movement, and had "wondered why it had taken so long, which was young-and-foolish talk back then."

While everyone headed to Washington, she spent the night before the big event in New York to answer calls from people wanting information about getting to the march. The benefit of staying behind was that she could fly to D.C. in the morning and get a bird's-eye view of people gathering at the National Mall.

"It was one of the most unforgettable sights and made me know that something was going to happen," Norton said. "We always anticipated it would be big, but we had no idea what big really meant. We couldn’t say 'as big as...' because there was no as."

Another memorable scene for her was standing by the Lincoln Memorial with her fellow SNCC members unable to see the end of the crowd.

"Whatever we expected, we didn't expect that," Norton said.

For Norton, who worked for several years as a civil rights attorney and 15 years after the march became chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the march is especially notable because it gave rise to legislation, which rarely happens.

"It was the natural culmination of the work of the civil rights movement beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, when Rosa Parks sat down and refused to get up, and got to the point where the sit-ins and violence against civil rights workers around the South had come to a head," she said. "There was only one thing left to do and that was to bring all of that marching and all of that protesting to the seat of power, and that, of course, was Washington, D.C."

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(Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

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