As the fall turned into bleak winter in 1962, two of the nation’s leading civil rights leaders dreamed about dramatic marches to demand full citizenship for blacks.
Martin Luther King asked President John Kennedy to issue a new emancipation proclamation on the centenary of the first. When JFK said no, King considered leading a march along the route Secretary of State William Seward used to deliver Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863.
Meanwhile, the longtime organizer Bayard Rustin urged A. Philip Randolph to revive his decades-old vision of a march on Washington. Randolph—the courtly but unyielding man who spent 12 years organizing porters for the Pullman Railroad Company, then the biggest employer of blacks in the U.S.—organized a march in 1941 to protest racial discrimination in wartime industries. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order banning discrimination in munitions plants, Randolph called off the rally. Since then, Randolph dreamt of bring hundreds of thousands of people to Washington to speak with one voice for jobs and rights.
So began two different, but overlapping, journeys to the day best known for King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” oration. On August 28, 1963, upwards of 400,000 people massed beneath the Lincoln Memorial—as King said, the greatest demonstration for freedom in the nation’s history.
In our “post-racial” era—with an African American in the White House, mixed couples, a strong black middle class, despite recurring tensions over tragedies like the Trayvon Martin killing—we still struggle to understand the meaning of the march and the civil rights movement. Was it a massive appeal to bring “black and white together”? Was it the moment when, for the first time, the basic principles of the right to vote joined as equals in pursuit of education, housing, jobs, and other blessings of liberty?
Or was it, as revisionists suggest, an opportunity for radical change stifled by the movement’s establishment leaders? And has the march’s radical message been whitewashed from the history books by a Disneyfied mindset about race, when people across the political spectrum honor Martin Luther King without understanding his fundamental critique of the American system?
Into this debate comes William P. Jones, a historian at the University of Wisconsin. Despite its title, his book, The March on Washington is not really about the March on Washington. In fact, only 38 pages of this 250-page book focus on the event. The first 166 pages describe Randolph’s career, the movement in the 1950s, and the divisions over civil rights in the labor movement. The last 45 explore the movement’s splits, its victories, and eventual breakdown.
Strangely, Jones never really develops any coherent view of the March. But as the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic event approaches, we need to look back and understand its origins and the speeches at the heart of it—including, of course, King’s “Dream” oration.
Jones seems to fall into the revisionist camp. He lavishes attention on organized labor and laments the splintering of the movement in the five years between the march and King’s assassination. He talks about Randolph’s frustrated efforts to use the march to build a broad coalition for civil rights, labor, and economic empowerment.
To make sense of the march, though, we need to begin with the summer of 1963. After the Birmingham campaign—an astonishing effort that broke segregation in its biggest urban center—2,000 demonstrations exploded all over the nation. Most of those demonstrations, tracked by the day’s journalists and the Justice Department, focused on civil rights—access to public places (stores, schools, churches, libraries, beaches, pools, amusement parks), the right to vote, and protection from the brutality of racist thugs and police.
Violence was the real leitmotif of ‘63. In Danville, Virginia, peaceful protesters (for civil rights, not jobs) were chased into an alley and beaten almost to death—then arrested and abused by a racist judge. In Cambridge, Maryland, martial law was declared after demonstrations devolved into violence.
In ’63, the movement took shifted north of the Mason-Dixon line, led by the National Student Movement, labor unions, churches, Alinskyite organizers, early welfare rights advocates, and black newspapers and radio stations. These campaigns focused on schools, housing, and jobs. New York protesters fought for black construction jobs at a medical center in Brooklyn. Chicago activists, protested segregated schools and crowding black kids into trailers. Elizabeth, New Jersey, protesters demanded fairness in hiring for construction jobs at a new apartment complex.
When Randolph and Bayard first discussed the march, they fretted over blacks’ high unemployment and poverty rates. Randolph always cared about economic opportunity. He called himself a socialist.
But when President Kennedy embraced civil rights as a moral cause in a televised address on June 11—and then submitted a landmark bill the following week—the march organizers knew they had a rare opportunity. If they played this new hand well, Congress just might produce the greatest civil rights law since the 13th and 15th amendments (abolishing slavery and servitude, respectively) and the 14th amendment (guaranteeing “equal protection” under the law).
Even the most radical elements of the movement agreed. Activists in SNCC and CORE talked about holding sit-ins on Capitol Hill, ringing the Capitol building, and demonstrating outside the Justice Department. That didn’t happen; march organizers feared strangling the bill in its crib. But that was the spirit of the march. When Mr. Randolph introduced congressional supporters of civil rights, the giant crowd chanted: “Pass the bill! Pass the bill! Pass the bill!”
If anything, segregationists like Strom Thurmond would have preferred a focus on economic issues. Thurmond’s argument—later echoed by apologists for apartheid—was simple. Rights don’t matter so much, he said, because blacks have never had it so good economically. Thurmond told talked about blacks’ ownership of refrigerators and cars as if only material things mattered.
The March on Washington is most famous for King’s oration—and for good reason. But King’s speech wasn’t warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t “optimistic,” as Jones says. It was, in fact, brutally frank about racism’s violence and brutality. Consider these words:
The Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination … the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty … [blacks live in a] dark and desolate valley of segregation … [we are experiencing a] sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent … [there will be] a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual … there will be neither rest nor tranquility [but] whirlwinds of revolt … [we have suffered] unspeakable horrors of police brutality … the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one … our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity … [many protesters are] battered by the storms of persecution … [we have all faced] unearned suffering …
King tells the crowd, bluntly and honestly, that they will suffer in the fight for basic rights. As King often reminded audiences, elites don’t give it up without a fight. When King urged the masses to “go back” home to fight for civil rights, he told them they would suffer brutally.
Without the context of his whole speech, King’s “dream” and his call to “let freedom ring” might sound “optimistic.” It might sounds like happy talk. In fact, too many people remember only King’s hope and forget his brutal truths. But think about it. What leader would only despair, without a vision of something better?
The dream motif—which, the night before, King’s aides begged him not to use because they considered it trite and cliche—is powerful not just because for its vision of a better day. Its greatest power comes from its defiance: You can beat us, scorn us, firebomb us, rape us, prevent us from voting—for now—but you cannot take away our hope. Why does that matter? Tyrants only succeed when they extinguish hope. When was the last time you heard a public figure speak so honestly to his people?
True enough, all was not sweetness and light after the march. Racists bombed churches, the movement’s schisms worsened, some blacks embraced separatism and the use of violence.
But on one day, for all the world to see, the civil rights movement revealed itself to the world—forceful but modest, optimistic but wary, patient but growing impatient, poetic but blunt, nonviolent but not naïve. The movement’s greatest radicalism could be found in these contradictions. The old center, we learned that day, would not hold. A new center would have to take its place.