The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom got early attention when hundreds of thousands once again jammed the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. They were motivated not by nostalgia, but by righteous anger that the hard fought gains Civil Rights Movement activists fought, bled, and died for are under concerted nation-wide attack by a nasty and resurgent Right Wing. The crowd was also driven by greater-than-ever income inequality and the creation of a low wage economy as well as an uneasy sense that the high hopes ushered in by the election of Barack Obama have been thwarted.
A parade of dignitaries, activist leaders, and celebrity entertainers including Civil Rights veteran and gun control activist Tony Benett spoke to the crowd. The highlight was a fiery speech by Congressman John Lewis, the last survivor among the 1963 speakers.
Unlike that long ago summer afternoon, the TV networks did not disrupt their schedules for live coverage. Cable network attention ranged from a continuous live streaming from C-Span, to fairly comprehensive coverage on MSNBC anchored by Melissa Harris-Perry and Ed Schultz, being virtually ignored and attacked on Fox News.
Still, the event did create greater than usual coverage of any protest actions. Predictably, however, it was mainly cast in the light as a celebration of the original march’s most famous speaker, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. who has been cast at the sainted hero of non-violence who single-handedly won equal rights. Clips of his famous speech ran longer than sanitized sound bites from the modern speakers.
This year, some slight attention was paid to one of the most neglected figures of the original march, Bayard Rustin, the Quaker pacifist who was the principle nut-and-bolts organizer of the ’63 event. Rustin, who was also Gay, was tapped by President Obama to receive a belated and posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. Other key figures in the original march, however, remain largely ignored and forgotten.
Like a lot of people back in ’63 I was glued to the television for the beginning-to-end coverage provided by CBS News. I was a 14 year old in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the time. I was both thrilled and awestruck. Listening to Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech literally changed my life.
The march originally was the brainchild of an elder of both the Labor and Civil Rights movements. A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the Negro American Labor Council as well as a Vice President of the AFL-CIO modeled his call for a march on Washington on a similar event he had planned back in 1941 to force President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open up employment in the burgeoning defense industry to Blacks. Just the threat of thousands of Negros descending on the Capital had been enough to cause the President to establish the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and bar discriminatory hiring in the defense industry. Randolph wanted to bring similar pressure on President John F. Kennedy and Congress to move on stalled Civil Rights legislation, but also to bring up new issues of jobs and economic opportunity that had been overshadowed by the tumultuous battle for civil rights in the South.
Randolph brought together the leaders of all of the largest national Civil Rights organizations including James Farmer, President of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Roy Wilkins, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, President of the National Urban League; and Dr. King, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form a coalition to sponsor the march. It was no small feat because of turf wars, ideological differences, and egos.
In addition Randolph sought support from the Labor movement, most significantly from Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW). The White dominated craft unions of the AFL, however, were notable for their absence.
Bayard Rustin of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, an early forerunner of the Freedom Rides that was meant to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel, was tapped to coordinate volunteers and logistics, recruit marchers from across the country and attend to all of the other details of the march while Randolph pulled together political, labor and religious support for the march.
Other than being a star speaker that day King was not heavily involved in the planning or management of the event. He even left the details of mobilizing SCLC supporters to his aides.
As word spread, it became apparent that the march was going to turn into the largest event of its kind in history. The media began to pay attention. On the day of the march, buses poured into the city from sleepy Mississippi towns and from gritty industrial hubs like Detroit and Chicago. Trains from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were jammed. Thousands of local Washington residents swelled the throng.
Organizers put the crowd at more than 300,000. The National Park Service, in charge because the speakers’ platform was erected at the Lincoln Memorial, said 200,000. Whatever was the case, crowds filled the Mall far passed the Washington Monument. About 80% of the marchers were Black, the rest mainly white. Marchers included many celebrities including actors like Sidney Poitier, Harry Bellefonte, and Charlton Heston—yes that Charlton Heston.
It was a Wednesday afternoon but the three major broadcast networks broke away from their usual programming of afternoon soap operas to cover the swelling crowd and speeches live.
Marian Anderson, who had sung on the same steps at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt after she was denied use of the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in 1939, opened the program with the National Anthem. Several other performers took to the stage over the course of the program, perhaps most notably Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Mahalia Jackson.
The Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle led the invocation. Other religious leaders on the program included Dr. Eugene Blake on behalf of the Protestant National Council of Churches and two leading Rabbis.
After Randolph’s opening remarks each of the major civil rights leaders took the stage in turn. Floyd McKissick had to read the remarks of CORE’s James Farmer, who was in a Louisiana jail. The youngest leader, John Lewis of the militant SNCC, excoriated the Kennedy Administration for not acting to protect Civil Rights workers who were under regular and violent attack across the South. Randolph and others who were trying to flatter and coax the President into action forced Lewis to strike the most inflammatory portions of his speech, but what was left was still plenty critical.
Slain NAACP organizer Medgar Evers’s wife Myrlie was on the announced program to lead a Tribute to Negro Women, but did not appear. In fact several prominent female figures in the Movement were either not invited or had their requests to be added to the program rejected by Randolph. In the end the only woman to speak was jazz singer Josephine Baker who wore her World War II Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur.
It all led up the last major address—the highly anticipated speech of Dr. King. If civil rights veterans knew what to expect from the notoriously eloquent leader, millions of Americans viewing at home were in for an eye opening experience. The speech, built to the thundering crescendo:
Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The nation, or most of, it was awestruck and impressed. That speech, along with the continued televised violence against Blacks struggling for equal access to public accommodation and the vote, helped set the stage for the major Civil Rights legislation enacted in the next three years.
Today, on the actual anniversary of the march, President Obama will mark the occasion with his own speech delivered from the same Lincoln Memorial steps. One of the most gifted orators in Presidential history, I am sure that his remarks will be by turns poignant, moving, and stirring. His admirers will be thrilled and the Right Wing hate machine will be geared up into full attack mode.
But however noble his speech, and perhaps even his deepest personal ideas, the President is presiding over the greatest usurpation of privacy in the nation’s history and the erection of a permanent security state that seems as much interested in monitoring and crushing domestic dissent as it is with any terrorist threat.
He is also said to be ready to launch yet another military adventure as soon as Thursday—a supposedly “limited” two day air attack on Syria for allegedly using poison gas on civilians in the bloody on going civil war there. It is not hard to imagine what his fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize might have to say about that.