The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom helped change the course of American history, but for some Californians the journey to get there was almost as momentous as what they saw and heard at the one-day civil rights rally Aug. 28, 1963.

This week marks the 50th anniversary not just of the historic march, but also of an epic bus ride, when a jubilant and idealistic group of Bay Area residents -- black and white and Asian-American; teenagers and elders; middle-class students and blue-collar longshoremen; friends and strangers -- crowded a Greyhound bus for a cross-country trip from San Francisco to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Transcending their differences was a shared sentiment: "We all hated racism," said Joanne Navin, now 81, one of the riders.

Some were galvanized by that year's TV footage of police hosing and beating African-Americans in the South. Jazz musician John Handy, now 80, was just as worried about inequality and racial discrimination experienced at home.

"Wrong was wrong no matter where it comes from, and San Francisco certainly had a lot of wrongs," said Handy, who was born in Texas but grew up in Oakland. "We were demonstrating against racism and discrimination at jobs and schools. It was here, too. That's why we went to Washington."

The Bay Area delegation joined a stream of buses, trains and planes carrying more than 200,000 people from around the country convening to march and listen to civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.


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Memories of the trips have faded, and many march participants are no longer alive. But the trip from San Francisco was memorialized in "The Bus," a documentary by Haskell Wexler that captured the intimate conversations and debates that happened as the activists traveled along Interstate 80 into Nevada, Utah and beyond.

Watching the out-of-print movie last week for the first time since its 1965 release, Nancy Schimmel's eyes glistened as the Berkeley folk singer relived moments she had barely remembered and others she never forgot.

Already active in the Women for Peace movement against nuclear weapons and testing -- and the daughter of Malvina Reynolds, a famous left-wing folk singer whose hit song "Little Boxes" had come out a year earlier -- Schimmel was a seasoned 28-year-old activist when she boarded the bus. Still, what transpired that week was like nothing she had ever seen.

"We knew it was going to be big and people were going to be coming from all over, but when you're physically with -- what was it, 250,000 people? -- it's overwhelming," Schimmel said.

She spent most of the ride in the very last seat of the bus, chatting incessantly with a friend. She is white. Her friend, artist Mary Ann Rock, who died just last week, was black. Among their discussions was what they'd wear for the Wednesday rally in the humid capital: Schimmel brought a paisley dress and sandals.

"Back then, we dressed up for demonstrations," she said. "We wanted to reach people who might get turned off if we were scuzzy."

A future San Francisco mayor and lawmaker, Willie Brown, was among the crowd that waved the troop goodbye from the parking lot of the Third Baptist Church near Alamo Square when they departed the Saturday before the march.

Handy, an emerging jazz star, brought his saxophone on the trip. Others brought guitars. They sang folk songs as they coursed through rural and urban landscapes, played slot machines at a bus stop in Reno and debated over the bus driver's recommendations for the best places to stop for food in Iowa -- all moments of levity captured in the film.

Wexler filmed the days-long ride in an observational, cinéma vérité style, focusing on the ordinary conversations between bus riders about their reasons for being there. He also caught tense disagreements over the tactics that should be used in the fight to overcome the nation's racial inequality. Those debates were happening not only in the deeply segregated South but also in California, where a more polite Bay Area atmosphere masked ongoing discrimination in housing, workplaces and schools.

"Within the group, there were differences about how you protest," said the 91-year-old Wexler, with white activists at times shown lecturing black activists about principles of nonviolence.

Among the skeptics was the white, Midwestern bus driver, who said he worried that staging such a massive demonstration will "cause hard feelings" and "do more harm than good." His perspectives evolve over the movie as he expresses sympathy for the civil rights cause.

"What was unexpected was the driver's transformation. You really felt it was genuine," Wexler said.

In 1963, Wexler was still in the early stages of a career that would win him two Academy Awards, as the cinematographer for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and for "Bound for Glory." An unabashed advocate for civil rights, he nevertheless stayed neutral and quiet as the bus riders approached western Maryland. There, some African-American riders wanted to stop at a convenience store in a segregated town where the bus attracted hostile stares.

Navin, who is white, was a self-described "prim and proper" San Francisco office worker when she cautiously joined the civil rights movement just months before the march, inspired by demonstrations by the Congress of Racial Equality demanding an end to segregation in San Francisco's public schools. Her bus trip ended up being a one-way journey to Washington, where she got hooked on the nascent movement, sold her return ticket and wanted to help out in the South. She now lives in Texas.

In one jarring scene, Navin loudly objects to an African-American activist leaving the bus, saying "the thing to do would have been to call a meeting."

"What's wrong with getting a pack of cigarettes in Hagerstown, Md.?" the black activist retorts.

Bayard Rustin, the architect of the D.C. march, had penned a detailed manual delivered to each "bus captain" around the country. It covered everything from "Why We March" to suggestions for what kind of sandwiches to bring. Among the clearest messages: Don't get into trouble or do anything to detract from the march's focused messages.

"I'm the one who stands up and reads to him the book on movement discipline," is how Navin remembers the exchange. "When you're committed to an action, you don't move off" and stray on your own, especially in a "very racist place" where venturing out could be dangerous.

In many ways, riders say their bus crew was a microcosm of a larger movement, whose diverse members came together for a short but hopeful and occasionally victorious period. The march itself "was probably the finest moment of black-white unity over ending the Jim Crow system," said Clayborne Carson, a Stanford history professor who directs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Carson was on a different bus -- then 19 years old, he traveled to D.C. from a conference in Indianapolis.

"It was a coalition. Ending the Jim Crow system in the South was the one goal that held the otherwise fractured movement together -- ending the system of oppression, discrimination and segregation," he said. "But once that was accomplished, all these same people went in a number of different directions."

Frustrated by the lack of progress, some black activists shifted to black power movements, such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that formed in Oakland in 1966. Some white liberals transitioned into the anti-war and women's liberation movements. And many mainstream white observers who sympathized with King's movement lost interest after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, believing the problems were solved, Carson said.

"Their goals were much broader than simply civil rights legislation," he said. "A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King and young students I knew ... they wanted a major transformation for American society. It was a freedom movement, it wasn't a civil rights movement."

Their dreams, including "an end to poverty as a social problem," remain unfulfilled, he said.

Still, those Bay Area residents who bused across the nation to make history at the march carry memories tinged with pride of what was accomplished that day and in the ensuing months and years.

"There have been big changes, but there are a lot more to go," Navin said.

Oakland Tribune librarian Veronica Martinez contributed to this report. Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-208-6429.

REMEMBERING THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
Sunday: "Meet the Press Special Edition: Remembering the Dream": A rebroadcast of the Aug. 25, 1963, edition of "Meet the Press," which features interviews with Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. The program aired three days before King delivered his speech. 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBC.
Tuesday: "The March": A documentary narrated by Denzel Washington that recalls the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into planning the 1963 event. 9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS.