Anyone paying attention to the events leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington should know by now that this historic gathering rallied under the banner of “jobs and freedom.” It has become common knowledge that economic justice was at the heart of the march’s agenda, and the main forces behind the event had roots in socialist movements—Bayard Rustin and veteran black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who threatened a similar march two decades earlier after a black woman activist proposed the idea at a Civil Rights conference in 1940. Thanks to the penetrating scholarship of William P. Jones’s March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, Gary Younge’s The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Dream, and Michael Honey’s eye-opening collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, forgotten speeches on labor, All Labor Has Dignity, among many other books and films, we have finally begun to crack a half century of myth portraying the march as a moment of Civil Rights triumph culminating in Dr. King’s optimistic and iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. While King’s speech remains the focus of every commemoration, A. Philip Randolph’s opening remarks are now getting some attention. Echoing Karl Marx’s oft-quoted line in Capital, that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded,” he presciently warned,
This civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not. . . . [W]e have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?
Less obvious, but equally important, was the incredibly violent context for the march. The peaceful, orderly character of the gathering continues to elicit commentary from both defenders and detractors of the march—the latter repeating Malcolm X’s point that 250,000 bodies descending on the nation’s capitol should have disrupted business-as-usual, waging a massive civil disobedience campaign in order to force the federal government’s hand. But looking back fifty years later, we are reminded that opponents of the march, including the Kennedy administration, used the fear of black violence to scare potential white marchers and to justify possible military action against the demonstration. The fact that D.C. area liquor stores were closed as a precaution against uncontrollable drunken Negroes rioting in the streets was an affront to black activists who spent months, if not years, confronting state and vigilante violence simply for demanding basic Constitutional rights. The irony was not lost on movement folks who had only months earlier faced Bull Connor’s dogs, water hoses, batons, bullets, and jail cells in Birmingham, suffered near fatal attacks in Mississippi for attempting to register voters, or attended the funerals of Herbert Lee or Medgar Evers. March organizers had every reason to be worried about violence, for they were dealing with palpable threats of terrorist attacks on buses carrying marchers and confrontations with American Nazis and Klansman showing up on the mall. And yet, as much as Bayard Rustin, Randolph, King, and others emphasized the peaceful nature of the gathering, they quietly placed the question of racist violence on display by deliberately choosing August 28 to march—the eighth anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
It is too easy to blame Cold War liberals and conservatives for airbrushing out the March’s radical agenda.
Fifty years later, the twin themes of economic inequality and racial violence resonate powerfully with contemporary activists. As writer Dave Zirin observed of the August 24 commemoration March on Washington, “The number-one face on T-shirts, placards, and even homemade drawings . . . was Trayvon Martin.” Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager shot in the heart by self-appointed community watchman George Zimmerman, has been described as this generation’s Emmett Till. In an age of unbridled corporate power, federal policies that favor banks over working people, a gargantuan police state that has locked away at least 2.3 million people, legislative wars on labor unions, women, immigrants, growing poverty—especially among African Americans—and the gutting of voting rights, we should not be surprised that today’s generation should identify with the March on Washington’s original core message.
How we lost the focus on economic justice and racial violence, however, was not simply a matter of historical (mis)interpretation. It is too easy to blame Cold War liberals and conservatives for airbrushing out the radical agenda and its architects, for turning what may have been the century’s largest demonstration on behalf of labor and economic justice into a Hallmark moment, a kind of last hurrah of the “good” movement whose wind helped push Congress to pass Kennedy’s Civil Rights legislation (the decisive gust being Kennedy’s assassination in November of that year).
The truth is that the broad economic agenda didn’t just drop out of historical accounts; it dropped out of the mainstream movement. First, the big groups—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress on Racial Equality, the NAACP and the Urban League—threw their energies almost entirely behind passing the watered-down Civil Rights bill and supporting a Voting Rights bill under President Johnson. Mainstream Civil Rights leaders de-emphasized economic justice in favor of gaining influence in the Democratic Party. Second, the labor movement betrayed the coalition’s racial justice agenda. No matter what AFL-CIO leader George Meany, or the United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther had said in support of Civil Rights, its rank-and-file white members worried that the elimination of racial barriers to equal wages, access to skilled jobs, and unfettered access to housing, would threaten their privileged status. And finally, Randolph and the circle of leaders controlling the march deliberately excluded black women’s organizations from playing any significant role in the movement. This significantly weakened the coalition, in part because activists such as Pauli Murray, Anna Hedgeman, Dorothy L. Robinson, and Dorothy Height (leader of the National Council of Negro Women) had already committed to linking labor and economic justice to questions of racial and gender equity.
The Negro American Labor Council (NALC), a lead sponsor of the march, tried to keep Randolph’s dream alive by organizing local marches for “Freedom from Poverty through Fair and Full Employment,” and threatening to hold a national, one-day work stoppage to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill. At the NALC convention in the spring of 1964, delegates passed resolutions proposing that the federal minimum wage be raised and extended to cover all workers, calling for unionizing domestic workers, abolishing the House Un-American Activities Committee, and throwing the Council’s support behind the American Labor Party in lieu of either the Democrats or Republicans.
Meanwhile, in the decade following the March on Washington, there were many black organizations that not only embraced a program of economic justice but promoted an even more radical agenda calling for the redistribution of wealth, reparations, and workers’ power. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, always considered an outsider among the big Civil Rights organizations, had begun to link its own voter registration campaign to economic justice before the March on Washington. When it waged its Freedom Vote campaign in Mississippi in the summer and fall of 1963, they ran a slate of candidates in a “mock” election to challenge the state’s lily white Democratic party behind a fairly radical platform that included the right of labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining; a $1.25 minimum wage; support for farm cooperatives in place of sharecropping and dispossession; the provision of low-interest loans for small farmers; a progressive land tax on tracts of land over 500 acres and tax exemption for those with plots smaller than 500 acres. The following year, they founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). While Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP’s challenge to the Democrats in Atlantic City is well-known, what is not well-known is that they survived efforts by liberals such as Curtis Gans who found their agenda far too radical for mainstream Democrats. Gans’s hope that “quick granting of voting rights will mean quick recruitment by the Democratic Party, which will mean quick scuttling of the Freedom Democratic Parties and SNCC control.” By 1968, the MFDP had adopted one of the most radical planks in the country, calling for a Guaranteed Annual Income; extended day care for poor and working mothers; comprehensive medical care for all; increased federal provisions for food stamp programs; and free higher education—not to mention a foreign policy agenda demanding an end to the draft, full military withdrawal from Vietnam, renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba and China, and an arms embargo on South Africa and Israel!
In other words, the core vision of the original March on Washington did not die on the vine of political compromise but continued to thrive and evolve in other movements. Economic justice, self-defense, and protection from state and vigilante violence (by that I mean racial and sexual violence, though in many instances they are inseparable) were key issues taken up by groups as diverse as the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Poor People’s Campaign, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Workers Congress, the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, and the Combahee River Collective, to name a few. Whatever their flaws and sharp ideological differences and contradictions, they each embodied, and built on, aspects of the March on Washington’s radical vision. And they prove that marches are not movements. Instead, they are flashes of peoples’ aspirations and frustrations, imprecise public voicings, and signs of crisis.
For better or worse, marches often concentrate a range of related issues into a few presumably achievable demands or easily digestible soundbites. These kinds of events, historic as they may be, are always in danger of abandoning a broad, complex, social justice agenda in favor of passing a law or mobilizing support for a single issue. Case in point: a long list of speakers at the fiftieth commemoration march organized mainly by the National Action Network covered a wide range of issues, from the New Jim Crow and home foreclosures, to poverty, public school closings, unemployment, environmental justice, reproductive rights, and racial violence. However, it is clear that the march’s lead organizers have settled on challenging Stand Your Ground Laws, challenging voter suppression and restoring the Voting Rights Act, and backing President Obama’s jobs plan. All the struggles that brought so many young activists to Washington, D. C.—from Occupy Wall Street and Moral Monday activists in North Carolina to labor organizers and immigrant rights activists from around the country—were simply not picked up as part of a national campaign. I’m not suggesting that any national movement take up all or even most of these issues. Rather, I simply want to suggest that we stay mindful of the lessons of 1963. Big glitzy marches do not make a movement; the organizations and activists who came to Washington, D. C., will continue to do their work, fight their fights, and make connections between disparate struggles, no matter what happens in the limelight.
The other lesson of 1963, of course, is not to confuse the halls of power with the struggle for justice. In an effort to gain as much consensus as possible —and therefore as much leverage—organizers of both commemorative events this year (August 24 and August 28) have created a tent so big as to include figures who represent the problem, not the solution, to the current crises. Imagine inviting Cory Booker (big defender of venture capital) and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (big defender of the National Security Administration), to speak at march celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a rebel who once prophesized that so long as “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” The man who said, “Nothing can be more destructive of our fundamental democratic traditions than the vicious effort to silence dissenters.” And imagine what it means to invite President Barack Obama—the commander-in-chief famous for escalating drone warfare resulting in targeted assassinations and numerous civilian casualties in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, the president who might have already bombed Syria by the time this essay appears, the president who oversees the largest secret domestic surveillance program in U.S. history—serving as keynote speaker for the commemoration taking place on the anniversary of the march. Critic/writer Jelani Cobb put it best when he wrote, “The aggregated moral will of the civil-rights movement is responsible for the election of an African-American President of the United States—a President who, on Wednesday, will speak at an event at the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the march, and whose tenure coincides with the most expansive capacity for government surveillance this country has ever known. The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward irony.”
The moral and political arc of movements for social justice is also very, very long. And this is why it is important to think beyond the march, “the speech,” the spectacle. To understand August 28, 1963 is to understand the entire era. It requires following those movements that fall outside the spotlight, the movements organized and led by the very women who were excluded from the mic on that incredibly hot and humid Washington afternoon. The work of social movements is not always sexy, nor is it necessarily inspiring. But they are the engines for change and the incubators of new dreams.