History would not wait in 1963.
When Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, Alabama’s police commissioner, decided in early May to use firehoses and German Shepherds to disperse non-violent civil rights protesters — including children — millions of Americans saw the images on the evening news.
“Alabama now rivals the racist police state of South Africa,” James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, told The New York Times, before urging President John Kennedy to intervene.
Later that month, Kennedy himself called the events “shameful,” noting that they were “so much more eloquently reported by the news cameras than by any number of explanatory words.” The young president had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in the Senate for political reasons and had taken little action on civil rights in his first two years in office.
Hoping to seize the nation’s attention, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), including Martin Luther King Jr., united with A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council, which had been planning a march that would catalyze the nation’s attention and force the passage of federal legislation to end discrimination and the “economic subordination” of African-Americans.
The result was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 that culminated at the Lincoln Memorial, where more than a quarter-million people gathered to hear speakers and musicians call for what King called in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail “our Constitutional and God given rights.”
It was to be the seminal moment in a moral crusade that transformed America, the reference point against which all marches and protests are measured. And 50 years later, as we mark our progress against that moment, the diagnosis is disturbing.
The Supreme Court has gutted one of the jewels of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, and seven Southern states have passed voting restrictions that would likely have been blocked by the law.
“When it comes to the economy, the black unemployment rate (12.6 percent) is nearly double that of whites (6.6 percent), almost the same ratio as in 1963,” writes The Nation‘s Ari Berman. “The average household income for African-Americans ($32,068) lags well below that of white families ($54,620) and declined by 15 percent from 2000 to 2010.”
The election of President Obama, who was two years old on the day of the first march, signals that the majority of American voters have no problem being represented by someone who could have been the victim of segregation just a few decades ago. However, the stop-and-frisk policies and “birther” scandals, along with the furious debate around the trial of George Zimmerman, show that the legacy of the issues that paralyzed much of this nation in 1963 linger — and perplex us — today.
Still, the images of that day in August, the antidote to the horrors of Birmingham, linger in the national consciousness as well, a constant reminder that the dream of America — the “promissory note” Dr. King described in his speech that day — must be constantly renewed by those who are willing to hold this nation to its founding promise that all are “created equal.”
Here are five things you should know about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
President Kennedy Initially Resisted The Idea
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy was forced to send in the National Guard to help integrate the University of Alabama over the objection of the state’s governor, George Wallace.
That evening, the president gave an address from the Oval Office that introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this, and other related incidents,” Kennedy said. Hours later, civil rights activist Medgar Evers of the NAACP was shot dead in his driveway by a member of the White Citizens’ Council.
A little more than a week later, the president met with a group of civil rights leaders known as the “Big 6” in the Oval Office, among them Dr. King and future congressman John Lewis, who was then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Here’s how Lewis describes the meeting:
President Kennedy wanted to meet with us because of all of the turmoil and discontent and frustration that was burning all across the country. I hadn’t heard anyone say anything about a March on Washington. All of a sudden in the meeting A. Philip Randolph spoke up in his baritone and said, “Mr. President, the black masses are restless, and we are going to march on Washington.” You could tell President Kennedy didn’t like that idea. He started turning in his chair and moving around.
He said, “Brother Randolph — or Mr. Randolph — if you bring all of these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and we will never get a civil rights bill through Congress?” and Mr. Randolph responded by saying, “Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful and nonviolent protest.”
We came out on the lawn and spoke to the press. We said “We had a meaningful and productive meeting with the president. We are going to march on Washington.” Randolph was the spokesperson.
After the march was a success, the president issued a statement lauding the effort.
“The cause of 20 million Negroes has been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation’s shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significant is the contribution to all mankind,” he wrote.
Unions And A Gay Man Played Key Roles
Like Kennedy and even the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League, white labor leaders were at first reluctant to support the effort, fearing an angry mob in the nation’s capital could delay a civil rights bill, possibly for decades.
But Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers recognized it was happening with or without labor, and joined his fellow union leader Randolph in supporting the March, while many of the building trade unions and the AFL-CIO did not participate.
The New Republic‘s Michael Kazin explains:
…progressive unions like the UAW made sure the event would succeed. In New York and several other cities, mobilizers worked out of union halls. Dozens of labor groups chartered buses, trains, and even airplanes to get members to the capital city. The UAW paid for a first-class sound system, so that every speech would ring out along the Mall, and produced thousands of signs with the slogan, “Equal Rights and Jobs NOW” printed in big, block letters.
These efforts supported the genius who organized the event, Bayard Rustin, who was a key aide to Randolph — and a gay man. President Obama will present Rustin, who died in 1987, with a posthumous Medal of Freedom later this year.
John Lewis, The Youngest Speaker At The Event, Was Forced To Revise His Speech
John Lewis was the youngest and most radical speaker at the event. His original draft called out President Kennedy specifically.
It was censored at the request of the archbishop of Washington, with the following paragraph deleted completely:
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.
Women Were Barely Represented
Though Joan Baez, Camilla Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, the Eva Jessye Choir and Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary all sang at the foot of Lincoln Memorial, only Josephine Baker was invited to give a speech at the end of the march. Organizers added the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” which recognized Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Prince E. Lee, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson, to placate female activists who were demanding a larger role. Women were also asked to walk in a separate march with the wives of the civil rights leaders.
Incensed, Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, disobeyed Randolph’s request not to remain in the city after the march and convened a interracial gathering of women in Washington D.C. the next day.
Rosa Parks later wrote, “Women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
UPDATE: This post has been corrected to note that Josephine Baker spoke at the March.
Martin Luther King Improvised The “I Have A Dream” Speech
When you watch Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from the March on Washington, it’s almost shocking how slowly he begins, plodding along as the crowd cheers him, trying to summon prophecy.
Then several minutes in, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson plays a crucial role in inspiring the man behind the podium that only one woman had been allowed to speak from.
“He was just reading, and she just shouted to him, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,’” said Clarence Jones, an advisor to King who had helped write King’s speech. “I was standing about 50 feet behind him, to the right and to the rear, and I watched him — this is all happening in real time — just take the text of his speech and move it to the left side of the lectern, grab the lectern and look out.”
King had spoken about his “dream” before. But if Jackson hadn’t been there that day, we may have been denied a piece of oratory that captured a vision of an America that we’re still trying to realize today.