Politicians and commentators from across the ideological spectrum like to invoke the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, as inspiring tales of America's triumphal advance toward racial justice. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the black-organized event that has received such universal praise we can count on seeing people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell wax nostalgically about the "message" of King's speech. But it's too easy to breeze past the March's painful historical context.
At the time of the march, many young civil rights activists, most notably those associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (including SNCC president John Lewis), were ready to conclude that the Kennedy Administration's response to the crisis was "too little, too late." These young people had been dealing with terrorism on an almost daily basis since the time of the first lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960.
Just over two months before the demonstration the federal government was forced to confront Alabama Governor George C. Wallace after he literally "stood in the schoolhouse door" to bar the enrollment of the University of Alabama's first African-American students (James Hood and Vivian Malone). On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced on national television he was sending a civil rights bill to a Congress loaded with segregationists. A few hours later, a member of the White Citizens' Council gunned down in the driveway of his home Medgar Evers who was the NAACP's field secretary in Mississippi. The Evers killing was labeled an "assassination" rather than a lynching because of his notoriety in helping James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi.
Murderous events like this one, as well as countless other lesser known acts of terror in the South, rarely make their way into the tributes and reminiscences. Just weeks before the march, in early August 1963, police in Gadsden, Alabama arrested about 700 protesters and used cattle prods on some of them to get them to move while they remained limp in the common tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. (Taylor Branch 1988 Parting the Waters, p. 877)
Less than a year before the March on Washington a member of the American Nazi Party from Virginia assaulted Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama as he spoke at the podium in the L.R. Hall Auditorium. King absorbed some wicked blows without fighting back and he refused to press charges. In early 1963, King's room at the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham was bombed and so was his brother's church. Throughout the spring of 1963 there were ongoing street battles in Birmingham between civil rights organizers and the local white power structure epitomized by the infamous Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. Then came the water hoses and attack dogs targeting protesters (even children) to repress the ongoing demonstrations in one of America's most segregated cities.
The main organization fighting the local struggle in Birmingham was the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) headed by the fearless Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (who was one of the speakers at the March on Washington). On numerous occasions white vigilantes nearly killed Shuttlesworth including a 1956 Christmas Day bombing of his home that knocked it off its foundation and blew the windows out of his church next door, the Bethel Baptist Church. It was not uncommon for the Birmingham News to print the names and addresses of blacks involved in protests or who were active with ACMHR, which put a target on their backs. In December 1962, Shuttlesworth's church was bombed again. Between 1947 and 1965, there were over fifty "unsolved" bombings in Birmingham, which earned the city the moniker: "Bombingham."
The federal government was as useless as the local law enforcement in arresting the bombers. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was known to leak stories to newspapers in the South alleging Communist involvement in King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the aim of smearing King and the movement and to drive a wedge between the SCLC and other organizations.
In 1963, a parole board appointed by Governor Wallace commuted the 20-year prison sentences of four Ku Klux Klansmen from Birmingham convicted of "mayhem." The crime occurred on September 2, 1957 when six supporters of a splinter group of the local KKK randomly abducted a 34-year-old black man who was walking down the street with his girlfriend near Zion City. He was a housepainter who was neither a civil rights activist nor a member of Shuttlesworth's congregation. The Klansmen drove him out to a cinderblock shack outside Calkville, donned their robes, and forced him to strip, crawl on his hands and knees, and bark like a dog. In a gruesome initiation ritual one of the Klansmen (wishing to impress the Cyclops) castrated him. They doused his wound with turpentine, threw him in the trunk of a car, and left him for dead near a little town called Springdale. They told him to warn Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders a similar fate awaited them if they continued to try "to enroll Negro children in white schools." (Quoted in Glenn Eskew 1997 But for Birmingham, p. 115) The victim survived (the turpentine might have saved his life) but the parole board believed justice was served by freeing the perpetrators.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
The legendary civil rights organizer and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, noted while planning the march that African Americans at the time accounted for about 11 percent of the U.S. population but were 22 percent of the unemployed. Job discrimination and lack of employment opportunities for black people was a central focus of the protest. A raise in the minimum wage to $2.00 an hour was one of the demands. The "call to action" that Randolph and Bayard Rustin sent out to their fellow civil rights activists named their enemies: "Southern Democrats and reactionary Republicans" who "fight against the rights of all workers and minority groups." (Quoted in Lucy Barber 2002 Marching on Washington, p. 148)
Representative James Haley, a Democrat from Florida, speculated that the march "could be the spark which would touch off an ugly, blood-letting riot, accompanied perhaps by killings." Representative W. J. Bryan Dorn, a Democrat from South Carolina, was astonished that for "the first time in the history of our nation . . . the federal government itself has encouraged a 'march on Washington.'" Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus claimed the demonstration was "inspired by Communists." Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina denounced Bayard Rustin, the principal organizer, as a Communist. About fifty members of the American Nazi Party organized a counter-demonstration but were disbursed by D.C. police.
"We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom," A. Philip Randolph told the crowd of over 200,000. He denounced "the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seeks to dominate the Congress." And he promised to return to Washington "again and again in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours."
The only woman who served on the March's administrative committee, Anna Hedgeman, criticized the lack of women on the speaker's roster. Randolph and Rustin responded by incorporating in the program at the Lincoln Memorial a "Tribute to Women," which recognized five female civil rights activists: Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers, Gloria Richardson, and Daisy Bates. The widow of Herbert Lee was also acknowledged; her husband had been slain two years earlier during SNCC's first voter registration drive in Mississippi. There were other critics too. Malcolm X, for example, condemned the participation of the Kennedy Administration: "When he joins you," he warned, "you're not going in the same direction you started in."
The media frame of the three television networks -- NBC and ABC gave sporadic coverage while CBS broadcast the entire event -- distilled the March down to King's peroration thereby obscuring the more radical sections of his speech and those of other speakers (including Bayard Rustin's ten demands). The spotlight on King tended to eclipse the collective action of thousands of ordinary people and projected a relatively benign view of the March.
In his "I Have a Dream" speech, King also refers to the guarantee of equality in the Declaration of Independence as a "promissory note" that turned out to be a "bad check" for the black population. He was saying that waiting around while the courts and Congress sorted it out was not going to work. Yet King and the organizers, most notably Bayard Rustin, wanted to do everything they could to help President Kennedy move his civil rights bill through a Congress with an entrenched "Dixiecrat" wing that had killed or watered down every other civil rights bill ever attempted.
The organizers of the March on Washington saw it as a great success in achieving its stated goals of educating white America about the injustices black people confronted in the South and toward building a wider coalition that could put pressure on Congress. President Kennedy praised the organizers for a job well done and invited the "big ten" for a meeting in the Oval Office. Those who met with the President that day, in addition to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, included Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz; Floyd McKissick of CORE; Matthew Ahmann from the National Catholic Conference; Whitney Young of the Urban League; Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC; John Lewis of SNCC; Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress; Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches; Walter Reuther of the UAW; A. Philip Randolph (key spokesperson for the March); and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
Back in Birmingham
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had been bombed before but no one was ever killed there until September 15th, 1963. Four African-American girls, (two 11-year-olds, and two 14-year-olds) -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair -- were murdered while preparing for choir practice in the church basement. Twenty-two other people were injured. The deadly bombing in Birmingham showed Dr. King's "dream" might have a long way to go in some parts of the country. The same day as the church bombing two other young blacks were killed in Birmingham: a 13-year-old shot while riding on the handle bars of a bicycle with a friend by a white boy not much older than him; and a teenager shot in the back of the head by police. (Branch, p. 891)
The next summer that followed the great march saw the abduction and murders of the "Freedom Summer" volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. In late 1964, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, after spying on Martin Luther King's private life, tried to blackmail him into committing suicide shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. A few months later came the murder of the Detroit civil rights volunteer, Viola Luizzo, in Alabama. In 1966, James Meredith, who in 1962 had become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot after he embarked on a solo "march against fear."
"Dixiecrats and Reactionary Republicans"
There were great achievements that came out of the movement in the early-1960s, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But what we have seen since those momentous years of struggle is the Party of Lincoln successfully implementing a "Southern Strategy." The GOP's electoral successes in the once "solid" Democratic South were only possible because the white population largely switched parties. There are complicated political, economic, social, and cultural causes for this shift, but all of them in one way or another grow out of a persistent racism the country has yet to address (despite the election of America's first black president).
What has been going on in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and other states, where Republican legislatures and governors have passed laws designed to strip away the vote from black people and other minorities, along with racially motivated gerrymandering, are all designed to keep wealthy white Republican politicians permanently in power.
Today, the ideological kinfolk of the white segregationists of 1963, bolstered by billionaires like the Koch brothers and Art Pope, are doing everything in their power to disfranchise African Americans and re-segregate or destroy public schools under the guise of school "reform." Add to this political calculus the new aggressiveness on the part of right-wing Southern politicians, the demonstrably racist application of "stand your ground" laws, the "Southernization" of the GOP, and the U.S. Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and what comes into focus is a clear attempt to push African-Americans back to a similar condition the March on Washington 50 years ago was mobilized to fight against.