March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom (1963):
Its Continuing Significance Half a Century Later
Fifty years ago, some 300,000 people from across America marched in the nation’s capital with determination yet demonstrable joy from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial–marking one of the key events in the modern civil rights struggle. Taken in its particular historical context, it is usually viewed, not improperly, as a force leading to the critical Civil Rights Act of 1964. As such, however, its more radical significance has been too often neglected.
The civil rights leaders calling for and organizing this dramatic happening were A. Philip Randolph (President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Vice President of the AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King, Jr. (President of the Southern Christian Leadership Council), and Bayard Rustin (activist leader in both the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress on Racial Equality).
Twenty one years earlier (1941), as the United States was on the cusp of entering World War II, Randolph, with the collaboration of Rustin, had called for such a massive march by African-Americans to demand the full desegregation of both the armed services and war industries. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearful of the prospect of that kind of demonstration, immediately outlawed discrimination in defense contracts on his own. While that action deterred the march, Randolph retained his yearning for full economic equality among black citizens, indeed among all citizens of America.
Subsequently, in 1962, as the “Freedom Movement” beginning in the fifties had expanded its activities—through sit-ins, freedom rides, local marches, demonstrations—Randolph instructed Rustin to prepare detailed plans for a large march on Washington focussed specifically on job discrimination. Very shortly thereafter in the Spring of 1963, during the notorious SCLC Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “We shall need a mass protest…to unite in one luminous action all of the forces along the far flung front.”
At that point, Randolph, Rustin, and King collaborated in a plan leading to the event in August. They brought together leaders of other black activist groups—the press naming them as the “Big Six”–who met strong resistance from President John F. Kennedy when they met with him about their intent. But they remained undaunted in their determination.
The Big Six, not without serious differences among themselves, nonetheless joined in framing a singular set of ten demands as the overarching goal of the march, ranging from effective civil rights legislation and banning racial discrimination in all federally supported housing to guaranteed jobs for all citizens with a living wage, and an end to discrimination in and by governments at all levels—federal, state, and municipal. In short, the aim of the March melded together concerns for racial justice and economic justice in its drive not merely for an end to racial discrimination, but toward genuine and full fledged equality in the economic sphere as the genuine meaning of democratic citizenship. It was therefore called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Reluctantly, the Kennedy administration supported the March, but stipulated conditions to forestall potential disorder: the march must occur on a weekday; it must begin and end during daylight hours; only approved signs can be displayed; liquor stores and bars are to close; federal employees are permitted to remain home; hospitals were required to be on alert in case of violent clashes.
The event itself, by far the largest mass demonstration in the capitol’s history to that point, belied the President’s fears. While wildly enthusiastic, the marchers were overall peaceful and orderly. About 75% were people of color from all sectors of the nation. In its day-long program, speeches—each limited to less than 10 minutes–were interspersed with musical renditions by well-known artists, appearances by notables, and also energetic singing of the anthems and hymns of the civil rights movement by all those gathered .
As well recognized, the most notable moment of the event was its final speech, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” address. King’s rhetorical style was unsurpassed. In its articulation of the sufferings of people of color, the unmet promises of American democracy, his vision of a thoroughly just and humane future, and the urgency of full-fledged social change, his address inspired the hundreds of thousands who heard him, unifying them in their determination to make equal freedom a reality for each and all. He invoked the words of the Declaration of Independence and of the ancient Hebrew prophet, Amos, to legitimate his call.
Among phrases repeatedly quoted from King’s address over subsequent decades most gave voice to a dream of racial harmony, e.g., “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….I have a dream that one day in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” In sum, King’s address together with the March itself have been popularly construed as an insistence on the need to surmount the strictures and miseries of racial discrimination. As a consequence, the demand for full and inclusive economic justice with which the originators of the March were equally concerned. has been largely ignored or dismissed.
Unfortunately, this diminishment of the fully radical significance of the March has been echoed, as well, in a narrowing of the overall mission of Martin Luther King, Jr. That King, along with many others, occupied a dominant role in transforming the shape of racial divisions in the United States during the civil rights struggle is to be granted. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 testify to that. However, his overall dream was far more extensive in its reach; it entailed no less than an extensive revolution of human relations—social, economic, and political—across the entire world.
King often cited the “triple evils” that beleaguer the world of his time (and ours): racism, poverty, and violence. On the issue of poverty, he proposed, unsuccessfully, that the 1964 platform of the Democratic Party adopt an extensive Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged including the right of all to full employment, advanced education, decent income, affordable housing, health care—all as a matter of plain justice. Later he launched a Chicago campaign focused on housing, employment, and education. In 1967, King initiated plans for a Poor People’s Campaign, entailing once again a massive march on Washington, this time by all suffering the indignities of poverty whatever their racial heritage. Because of his assassination in April 1968, King was deprived of participating in that march, but it nonetheless occurred, despite his tragic death, in August of that year.
On the issue of violence, King long opposed our nation’s deep engagement in the war against North Vietnam. Despite efforts by others in the Civil Rights Struggle to deter King from expressing his opposition to the war in the public forum as detracting from that struggle, he nonetheless did so in a lengthy address, “A Time to Break Silence,” in New York City (April 1967), affirming that racism and the Vietnam War were inextricably linked. Indeed, not to be neglected in representing King’s mission is his unqualified commitment to nonviolence as the only morally acceptable method of resolving conflict in all arenas of human interaction, personal and political.
In sum, in King’s mind, racial equality, economic justice, and peaceable relations constitute essential qualities of the “beloved community”–a concept he constantly invoked over the years as the overarching vocation of all our endeavors. The “beloved community,” I suggest, is the centerpiece of his overall dream—his vision of a new tomorrow for the United States, even more, for the world. And, I propose, it is indicative of the continuing significance of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In celebrating that March now in 2013, we are called to recommit ourselves to that encompassing dream. May it come to be.