On Sunday, August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people crowded the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to stake their claim for jobs and freedom in a turbulent America. But it was just six groups that shared the bulk of the credit for orchestrating the momentous occasion. Not one of the six emerged from the event unchanged. And now, as the March On Washington celebrates its 50th anniversary, the divergent paths of some of these organizations serve as a striking microcosm of black America in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
The “Big Six,” as the march organizers came to be known, were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress On Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the National Urban League. Fifty years after the march, three of these organizations are still fighting the same battles they were in 1963, one has experienced a dramatic, rightward shift in its politics, and two have faded away entirely.
In the early 60s, though, they met on the same road, one marked by a unity forged in the oppressed state of black America in the decades preceding the Civil Rights movement. Several of the people who helped shaped these organizations spoke to The Huffington Post about the common goals their groups shared that summer in Washington -– and how the experience changed them forever.
Labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who was a founder and the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is widely credited with being the first to advance the idea of marching on the nation’s capital, but it wasn’t in 1963. The New York City-based BSCP was the first black-led labor organization to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor, and it was instrumental in fighting southern segregation. After learning how to organize mass protests through his work in building that organization, Randolph set his sights on ending racial discrimination in America’s defense industries during World War II.
Along with Bayard Rustin, who at the time was just beginning what would become a legendary career in civil rights activism, Randolph threatened to bring hundreds of thousands of blacks to Washington if the government didn’t address the discrimination in the nation’s defense industries.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the landmark Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, establishing the President's Committee on Fair Employment and effectively ending that form of segregation, momentum for the march subsided.
As passenger travel on trains declined sharply through the 1960’s and 70’s, the need for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters also declined. The group eventually merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, where its legacy as a labor union and civil rights organization still lives on.
Twenty years after Randolph’s initial call for a march, with the economic needs of black America still pressing and with violence against blacks increasing, Randolph once again dreamed of leading thousands to the National Mall. This time, he would make sure it happened.
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, the last living speaker from the 1963 march, recalled his own motivations for getting involved in the Civil Rights movement.
“As a child traveling through Alabama, I can remember seeing these signs: ‘white men, colored men,’ ‘white women, colored women,’ and I asked my parents, ‘What does that mean?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It was then that I knew I had to work to make this country a more equal place," he said.
Lewis’ organization was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded at Shaw University in North Carolina in 1961. Though one of the youngest organizations at the march, it was also one of the most expansive and aggressive. In his speech on the Mall in 1963, Lewis is most remembered for his admonishment of the Kennedy administration for not protecting “the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration.” He was the only speaker at the march to take on the administration directly.
By 1965, SNCC had the largest staff of any civil rights organization in the South. Comprised primarily of college students, SNCC held sit-ins and led freedom rides throughout the 1960s. In a 2000 article for the Monthly Review, “SNCC: What We Did,” former congressman, SNCC Communications Director and NAACP Chair Julian Bond recounted an anecdote that captured the essence of the group:
“As former President Jimmy Carter told former SNCC worker and author Mary King, ‘if you wanted to scare white people in Southwest Georgia, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wouldn’t do it. You only had to say one word—SNCC.’”
SNCC’s reputation was built on its grassroots field work and ability to organize voters in communities throughout the South. But as the 1960s continued, a faction within the organization came to grow doubtful of the effectiveness of nonviolent protests.
One such leader, Stokley Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), succeeded Lewis as chairman of the group in 1966. It was a harbinger of SNCC’s clear shift toward a more revolutionary, Black Nationalist approach to the struggle for freedom and equality.
After leading the organization for less than two years, Carmichael was succeeded by H. Rap Brown (later known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), and the name of the organization was changed from the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” to the “Student National Coordinating Committee.” Mainstream civil rights organizations eventually distanced themselves from this new, more militant group, and by the early 1970s the organization had completely dissolved.
Despite its relatively short life, the legacy of SNCC lives on through the crucial role it played in advancing black enfranchisement in the South, organizing the March on Washington and in helping push for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The group also lives on through leaders like John Lewis.
Fifty years later, as might be expected of a former SNCC member, Congressman Lewis is still unafraid to challenge the president, even the first black man to hold that office. On what President Barack Obama can do to advance the cause of equality in America, Lewis said,
“In 2013 I would say Mr. Obama, now more than ever before, we need you to continue to push and pull, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s 'I Have A Dream Speech,' you are the first African-American President of the United States, we believe in you, America believes in you, lead us to higher heights.”
With SNCC’s historical legacy is checkered by its shift to more revolutionary protest, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has been the standard bearer for nonviolence in the years since the march. Organized by Ella Baker, Rustin, King (who was the organization’s first president) and a host of ministers, the Atlanta-based SCLC’s primary goal was to use nonviolence to fight southern segregation.
Dr. CT Vivian, who on August 8, 2013, was honored with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was one of the organization’s early members, and is its current president.
“When I think of the SCLC, Dr. King’s organization, more than any other it is still the biggest proponent of nonviolent direct action,” he told The Huffington Post.
“With Martin King, backed by the African-American community, and with unity as the method, he could tell those that weren’t going to give us a fair chance, that we were not going to accept it," he said. "It was the first time African Americans could say ‘no’ to white power and it was through nonviolent direct action."
Besides helping to desegregate much of the South and playing a huge role in organizing the March on Washington, Vivian also counts organizations like Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network as significant parts of SCLC's legacy. Both organizations in many ways trace their roots back to the group.
“I personally went over to Jesse’s apartment when he was still at seminary at the University of Chicago," Vivian said, when asked how Jackson first got involved. "Al Sampson, who was on my team within SCLC, told me how good he was. He knew how to organize and he believed in nonviolence. By the time I finished with the examination, I asked Martin to think seriously about bringing him on. They talked, he interviewed Jesse and he came on at SCLC.”
As the SCLC looks forward, it plans to work with Jackson’s and Sharpton’s organizations and use its extensive connections to ministers across the country to address disenfranchisement, education, and the school-to-prison pipeline in black America.
“We’re not talking about just one organization, we’re talking about a people with many organizations. Everyone of those must be working together for good,” Vivian said.
While the SCLC points to issues like voter ID laws across the country and disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans as evidence of a continuing need for black activism, Roy Innis, who has been the National Chairman of the Congress On Racial Equality since 1968, sees things differently.
Of the six organizations instrumental in planning the 1963 march, CORE has had the most dramatic shift in political ideology. With the help of Rustin, CORE was founded as a pacifist organization by civil rights activist James Farmer, Methodist minister George Houser, Catholic pacifist James R. Robinson, activist and organizer Bernice Fisher, Unitarian minister Homer Jack, and Joe Guinn, who led the NAACP’s Youth Council in Chicago. The group's goal, like that of many of the other “Big Six” organizations, was to end segregation through nonviolent means.
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, however, CORE began shifting its focus toward encouraging blacks to address cultural issues the organization sees as problematic and antithetical toward black progress.
“There are movements and steps that we can take in our own communities, racist problems that we have in our own communities that we could address: black-on-black crime, for example. There was a reluctance to recognize these facts, by us,” Innis said.
Many of CORE’s fellow civil rights organizations criticized this shift in focus from external impediments to equality to internal ones. For Innis, this criticism hurt.
“It was painful, it still is painful,” he said. “We won victories in the Civil Rights Movement, in particular, the '64 and '65 Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Bill."
But, he added, "we’re still not able to recognize the obvious stumbling blocks that we’re responsible for."
As Innis reflects on CORE’s history and looks to its future, his focus will be on addressing the issues he sees as most pertinent to black advancement.
“The cultural patterns of the hip-hop generation, even to the point of imitating the dress code of the prisoners, the jailhouse -– the thug look," he said. "They have to open the discussion of, ‘How does that dress code further the progress of our people?’ ‘How does it improve other people’s vision of us?’ It gives a negative image of our people and we know it.”
Innis cited as an example the recent case of Christopher Lane, the white Australian basketball player reportedly gunned down in Oklahoma by a group of teenagers, including at least one black individual.
“We have to make sure we’re not being hypocrites," he said. "After a copious amount of critiques went into the Trayvon Martin, [George] Zimmerman case, even up to the president, the same outrage is not being expressed when the reverse situation existed. An Australian, who had nothing to do with our American problems, gets caught up and we have silence from the president, silence from Sharpton, silence from Jesse Jackson.”
While CORE has had a sharp change in its political leaning, the National Urban League and the NAACP have remained key players among American civil rights organizations. Both more than 100 years old, they can trace their success to steady leadership and organizational focus.
The National Urban League, for example, has had only eight presidents in its 103-year history. And the NAACP’s original mission statement from 1911 is still as important today as it was then, according to its current president, Benjamin Jealous.
"If this year has shown us anything, it's that the work of the 1963 march is not yet finished," he said. "We are still fighting for the right to vote, fighting poverty, and fighting against the senseless killing of black men. The NAACP's mission is still incredibly relevant."
NUL President Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, said what separates his organizations from many others is its ability to provide direct services to those in need through its extensive, on-the-ground partnerships.
“The strength of the urban league movement is our network of affiliates. We have 95 now, in 1963 in we had about 65,” he said. “None of the other organizations provide the job training, the after-school programs, the business development and the home-buying guidance we do."
Another key factor in both organizations’ ability to stay relevant has been their use of modern technology. Embracing new means of connecting those in need with those willing to help has attracted a new generation of tech-savvy people of color.
"We have an incredibly active digital media department,” Jealous said. “Ten years ago we had no online presence. Five years ago we had 175,000 online activists. This year we have more than 1.3 million. We also have a robust mobile messaging program (420,000 subscribers) that is incredibly useful in getting information out quickly -- for instance after the Zimmerman verdict. We have to continue to adapt.”
Echoing Jealous’ sentiments, Morial said, “We have social media integrated into every single thing we do. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, we are very active in pursuing messages and we’re going to continue working on getting better at that because we do believe it’s the future.”
As the nation commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the monumental nature of what the “Big Six” accomplished on that day cannot be overstated. Still, as shown by the continued dedication of the remaining organizations, the time for celebration has not yet arrived.
“We think the time has come where we cannot allow the headwinds of voter suppression, an assault on the poor through fiscal austerity and the staggering black unemployment numbers to mute the progress of our people," Morial said. "We are working to build a new civil rights movement.”