President John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in May 1963.

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Wednesday marks 50 years since the March on Washington

The historic event culminated with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

President Kennedy thought the march would hurt his proposed Civil Rights Act

He eventually abandoned his opposition to the event

CNN  — 

On a day when so many Americans felt joy, peace and life-long inspiration from the March on Washington, then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was so nervous he could barely sit down.

“Pacing around the room,” described Jack Rosenthal, Kennedy’s deputy press secretary on August 28, 1963. “The attorney general (was) off and on the phone, talking I presume to march organizers or to the White House.”

Rosenthal was with Kennedy inside the “command center” that Justice Department officials used to monitor the march inside the Justice Department headquarters.

This week marks 50 years since the march and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech. While the event has been analyzed by countless historians, the Kennedy administration’s relationship with the march wasn’t so easily understood.

“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march 50 years ago.

9 things about MLK’s speech and the March on Washington

Yet President John F. Kennedy and his attorney general brother knew the march had to be successful, so they assigned a small staff of Justice Department officials to help.