August 28, 2023 marks the 60 year anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
According to the NAACP, the origins of the March on Washington began in the Franklin Roosevelt administration:
In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph first conceptualized a “march for jobs” in protest of the racial discrimination against African Americans from jobs created by WWII and the New Deal programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The march was stalled, however, after negotiations between Roosevelt and Randolph prompted the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) and an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries.
As progress was slowed in Congress the calls for a march began to grow. Per the NAACP:
By the late 1950s, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were also planning to march on Washington, this time to march for freedom.
As the years passed on, the Civil Rights Act was still stalled in Congress, and equality for Americans of color still seemed like a far-fetched dream.
Randolph, his chief aide, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. King all decided it would be best to combine the two causes into one mega-march, the March for Jobs and Freedom.
The anniversary of the mega-march got me thinking, what beer was in DC when Dr. King and a quarter million people came to our city? To my surprise there were a few beers sold in town during the March for Jobs and Freedom.
Stretching back a bit further, how many breweries were in operation in the US in 1963?
According to the Brewers Association there were 173 breweries in the US in 1963. Fortunately for us, the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, Historic American Newspaper digital archive serendipitously ends in 1963.
Thanks to the archives, we know the brands for sale and their cost. For example, Phil-Co, a store at 208 Mass. Ave, NE, had for sale cases of Ballantine, Carling, or Pabst beer which would run you $3.16.
A somewhat new development in beer drinking had just begun prior to Dr. King’s March for Jobs and Freedom. According to Dr. Mark Benbow, Ermal Fraze, an engineer and Ohio man who decided to tackle the problem in about 1959 of not having a churchkey for your beer cans. As lore has it, he successfully designed the lid shortly thereafter. Benbow writes:
Fraze sold the rights to the invention to Alcoa and they convinced Iron City Brewing in Pittsburgh to give these new tops a try. Iron City tested the first of the zip tops in March 1962 in Virginia, coincidentally where the first beer can had been tested in 1935. The test was a success and within a year Schlitz had followed Iron City’s lead, with both beers advertising their new convenient tops.
Interestingly, The Evening Star ran an ad by Alcoa, the day after the March on Washington. In the ad Alcoa featured “easy opening aluminum tops” for Labor Day The headline from that paper on Thursday, August 29, 1963 is “Successful March Pleases Leaders of Civil Rights Drive.”
National Capital sponsored the Washington football team and a series of ads hints at what was likely a decent expense spent to advertise.
In addition to National Bohemian Beer, Tom’s Chevrolet, Oil Heat Institute, and American Homeowners Insurance Co., and Bruce Hunt Inc. also sponsored the football team’s games on WWDC-AM and FM radio.
DC’s last brewery (before the modern openings of Capitol City–DC’s first brewpub–in 1992 and DC Brau- DC’s first production brewery–opening in 2011) the Christian Heurich Brewing Company had closed in 1956.
Hamm’s was also in our city and they had a beer they sold as Extra Special. The Hamm’s 1963 ad reads “EXTRA SPECIAL HITS WASHINGTON!” The big new beer with muscle evidently hit differently, and as the 1963 ad copy reads, “This one’s different!”
It’s unclear how different Hamm’s Extra Special was from other beers at the time but as a creative exercise it’s important to know the US had some REALLY different beers in existence, even in 1963.
According to Dale P. Van Wieren, The Spearman Brewing Co. opened in Pensacola, Florida, in 1935 and closed in 1964.
Photo from Pensacola New Journal Image Courtesy of the UWF Historic Trust
One of the beers they produced “Straight Eight” was a beer so named due its 8% alcohol by volume. And while I have no idea if Spearman’s Straight Eight ever made it to DC before the brewery closed in 1964, I do know it’s in an archive at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I know because I took this photo seven years ago.
I would be remiss not to mention the Black-owned breweries in DC and Maryland today. Today, DC is home to Sankofa, Soul Mega, and Urban Garden, these three beer brands make our brewing scene better. Subtle Nod makes beer at DC Brau, as well. However, I would also be leaving a large detail out that none of these beer brands have brick and mortar facilities. In fact, the closest Black-owned brick and mortar brewery to buy pints and beer to go, is Patuxent Brewing Company, in Waldorf, Maryland. One recent development is that Urban Garden announced last month that they’re planning to open a physical space in Fort Totten, DC.
Let’s applaud and support Black brewers, and the beer brands and owners mentioned above. But let’s also celebrate the sales people, packaging workers, and warehouse managers, working locally at breweries like City-State, DC Brau, Other Half, Port City, Red Bear, and Right Proper.
Recognizing the gains we’ve made feels good, but what about seeing how much more work needs done to achieve the dream of equity? That’s the work that we all must engage in as we consider where we will be 60 years from now.