When you look at photos of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963, notice the men. Among the 250,000 people who came to the capitol from all over the country, a huge percentage of the men were in suit and tie. Though personal accounts of the weather that day recall unbearably hot temperatures in the 90s, the National Weather Service reported a high of 83° that day. One can imagine, though, the excitement of it all making the day feel like no other.
Regardless of the temperature, the men – both black and white – showed up in suit and tie. In sharp contrast to our modern day mode of “mental patient casual” (rubber shoes, elastic waistbands, etc.), men in those years had a markedly sharper sense of occasion, as demonstrated most recently on Mad Men. Beyond the sense of occasion (suit and tie was regular gear for many of these men), there was an unprecedented importance to this day. These men had ulterior motives for suiting up.
On a recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition, Jack Hansan recalled his experience as a demonstrator at the march. A white husband and father of young sons, he was one of 500 Cincinnati business men and civic activists who took a special two-night train to Washington, DC with a mission. In the NPR interview, Hansan said of the time:
“We had to get rid of this — I don’t know how you would say it — this discrimination that was so prevalent in communities like our education system, our churches… So participating in the march was like climbing a mountain, and for us, we wanted to be on the top.”
About the dress code, Hansan recalled how all the men dressed, not just at the march, but on the train there and back: “We were all dressed politely, like we were going to an office. Shirts and ties.” In fact, marchers were encouraged by local organizing committees to look clean and sharp, dressed as if they were in DC to “close a deal.” And that they did, looking like men of respect and dignity, men who demanded to be taken seriously, men with whom to be reckoned.
Looking back at the historic event with deep emotion, Hansan concluded with this: “You know, it’s not been done. And the March on Washington was just one of the starting events, but it’s still not complete.”
Thank you, Mr. Hansan, for your participation in the making of history and for setting a brilliant example by suiting up and showing up. I suspect that many special-interest groups today looking for recognition and respect, demanding to be taken seriously and seeking to “close a deal” would do well to borrow from your manual.