On August 26, 2013, some 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC for a demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a
Dream” speech. The National Action Network called the rally and march to honor the legacy of King and the civil rights movement. Read a report of the day’s event here.
Enclosed is this web posting are three items on the historical significance of the 1963 march, including a link to the text and audio of the 55-minute speech by Dr. King on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City where he pronounced his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Who organized the historic March on Washington?
Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous moments in U.S. history, the 1963 March on Washington that helped win civil rights. But while King and his “I have a dream” speech are universally known, the origins and organizer of the march have largely been written out of history.
Mainstream history presents the civil rights movement as either a spontaneous outburst or a campaign entirely directed by King, a supposedly simple dreamer whose politics were frozen in 1963. The Civil Rights movement is presented as a single issue struggle — with no connection to anti-war, labour, gay or radical activists — which culminated in the March on Washington and civil rights legislation that supposedly completed the black freedom struggle. In response, radical historians have often dismissed the March on Washington and its organizers; Howard Zinn’s masterful People History of the United States described the march as a “friendly assemblage” that was highjacked by the Democrats, and never mentions its main organizer Bayard Rustin (pictured behind King).
But remembering the origins and organizers of the March on Washington restores its connections to anti-war and labour movements, to anti-Stalinist socialists and to gay activists who struggled before Stonewall. This rich history, including its strengths and weaknesses, is important both to understand how the civil rights victory was won, and why King’s dream remains deferred.
The idea of a march on Washington started with A Philip Randolph, a socialist and trade union activist, who organized the first predominantly black union — the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1941 he used the threat of a march on Washington to force Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries.
In the 1940s Randolph joined forces with Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Quaker who joined the Communist Party in Harlem in the 1930s — when the organization still had a strong record of fighting racism and inequality. When Stalinism purged Communist Parties of their politics and dropped anti-racist struggles in order to support the war, Rustin left the party to work alongside Randolph and AJ Muste. Muste was a Christian pacifist and labour activist who founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), taking pacifism and civil disobedience to fight racism.
After going to jail for resisting WWII — where he was persecuted for being black and gay — Rustin joined CORE, the War Resisters League and Ella Baker (another unsung hero of the civil rights movement) to organize multiracial teams to challenge bus segregation — a precursor to the Freedom Rides. As Rustin wrote later, “That period of 8 years of continuously doing this prepared for the 1960s revolution. I do not believe Montgomery would have been possible nor successful except for the long experience people had about reading about sitting in buses and getting arrested, so that people had become used to hearing this.” In 1948 Congress debated peacetime conscription, and Randolph and Rustin began organizing another March on Washington — which pressured Truman to desegregate the armed forces.
One of the main reasons Rustin has been written out of history is because of homophobia. In the early 1950s he was arrested for “perversion,” fired from CORE and forever kept in the shadows of movements despite his central role. As his biographer wrote, “The arrest trailed Rustin for many years afterwards. It severely restricted the public roles he was allowed to assume. Though he fought his way back from the sidelines, he did so at a price. As both the peace and civil rights movements grew dramatically over the next decade, as a philosophy of nonviolence became familiar to millions of Americans, Rustin’s influence was everywhere. Yet he remained always in the background, his figure shadowy and blurred, his importance masked. At any moment, his sexual history might erupt into consciousness. Sometimes it happened through the design of enemies to the causes for which he fought, sometimes through the machinations of personal rivals, sometimes through the nervous anxieties of movement comrades. But underneath it all was the unexamined, because as yet unnamed, homophobia that permeated mid-century American society.”
As the documentary Before Stonewall reminds us, many queer activists were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, which became a training ground for the Gay Liberation Movement that began in 1969.
When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat and King began organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin went on behalf of the War Resisters League to help. His account humanizes King, who was not born a leader but developed during the course of the struggle: “The fact of the matter is, when I got to Montgomery, Dr. King had very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out. He had not been prepared for the job either tactically, strategically, or in his understanding of nonviolence. The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest.”
Rustin mentored King, connected his struggle with campuses and unions across the country, helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and organized its first action: the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage that mobilized 20,000 to Washington. Meanwhile, Ella Baker helped launch the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), when sit-ins started exploding across the South.
In 1963, Randolph and Rustin began organizing a Washington on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, connecting the fight for civil rights with economic justice. As Rustin explained: “Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodation will be of limited extent and duration as long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists. When a racial disparity in unemployment has been firmly established in the course of a century, the change-over to ‘equal opportunities’ does not wipe out the cumulative handicaps of the negro worker. The dynamic that has motivated negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.” This perspective brought together the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, SCC, the National Urban League, religious leaders and the United Auto Workers. While the AFL-CIO labour bureaucracy stayed away, labour activists across the country mobilized — including steelworkers, ladies garment workers, packinghouse workers, electrical workers, and labour councils. On August 28, 1963 a quarter of a million people marched on Washington, and forced the Democrats to provide civil rights legislation.
Poverty, racism and militarism
But as Zinn explained, the corporate Democrats moved quickly to smother the broader project. Rustin was co-opted and called for a shift “from protest to politics”, subordinating the movements in order to placate the Democrats — while his elevation of multiracial non-violence from tactic to principle led him to condemn Black Power and the Vietnamese resistance. But as his biographer noted, “the pupil surpassed the teacher.” King, rescuing Rustin’s legacy and continuing to learn from the struggle, condemned the Vietnam War and the “giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation,” planned a Poor People’s March on Washington, and went to support striking sanitation workers — where he was killed.
Fifty years after King dreamed of a day when people would “not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character,” Trayvon Martin was murdered for being black — while Chelsea Manning has been persecuted for speaking out against a war that killed a million Iraqis. With 100,000 marking the 50th anniversary of the march, many are rediscovering its radical roots — connecting civil rights to broader struggles and committing themselves to King’s words from 1967 that remains relevant today: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Desecration of a noble moment in U.S. History:
Obama commemorates the March on Washington
By Norman Pollack, Counterpunch, Aug 28, 2013
It befouls the memory of Dr. King to have invited Obama to speak. He represents the antithesis of everything Dr. King dreamed of and worked for. Yes, I was there in 1963, where the air was filled with the spirit of justice, justice not as an abstraction, not as a catchword deceive about interventions abroad and entrenched poverty at home, but justice as the full democratization of America, in which racial segregation conveyed the salience of a structure and society grounded in wealth-inequality, ideological themes supporting aggression against the weak, veneration of wealth, and extreme loathing of dissent, and the arrogance of militaristic preeminence as the basis for global leadership.
The themes have not changed; democratization is further away than in 1963. What has changed is, there is no Dr. King now in American life, only the timeservers for militarism and corporate wealth, of which Obama represents the gold standard: “I have a Dream” vs. the Killer of the Dream, indeed, all dreams of social decency and the affirmation of life.
I’d like to return to Dr. King’s speech, but first, if I may, I’d like to set the scene, my introductory note to the speech, in a documentary collection, co-edited with Frank Freidel, shortly after, when the moment was still fresh in my mind:
America witnessed an historic occasion on August 28, 1963. On that day approximately one quarter of a million people, Negro and white, oldtimers in the civil rights struggle such as A. Philip Randolph and high school students from the sit-in demonstrations, men in overalls fresh from the Danville jail and well-dressed professional people from New York and Los Angeles, came to Washington with one common resolve. As the largest living petition in American history, they gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to call for effective civil rights legislation and equal job opportunities.
The mood of the March on Washington was dignified; there was no violence. In this setting, with the people listening to one speaker after another under the hot sun beating down, the expected moment finally came. Dr. Martin Luther King, spiritual leader of the civil rights movement and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking slowly and with a cadence in his voice which caused many to close their eyes and move gently back and forth, articulated the aspirations of all who share his vision of America.
Dr. King’s vision of America transcended race, transcended class, transcended contemporary world politics, sought in the word brotherhood, just as did Paul Robeson in his soulful “black or white or tan,” The Purest Kind of a Guy, a unitary humankind without oppression, without wars, without hatreds and petty fears, without, in the final analysis, the domination of one nation, race, group, or individual, over another nation, race, group, or individual. Skipping over the familiar passages, justifiably memorable for their honest eloquence (a trait absolutely foreign to Obama, his cunning, his teleprompter, his speechwriter Rhodes), I want to bring out the power of Dr. King’s uncompromising challenge to America, one that fifty years later perversely seems to have been met and won, yet, I believe not, however much we’ve seen the end of segregation and a black president in the White House.
Honesty clashes with smoke and mirrors, with propaganda, with deceit, as evidenced by having Obama make this address; for the acceptance of blacks in American life has been through the suspension, indeed, the surrender of the autonomy and critical reasoning among blacks themselves which so characterized the authentic striving for dignity and civil rights a half-century ago. Even John Lewis, an esteemed leader of SNCC, continues to honor Obama, despite the latter’s utter disregard not only of the black masses but also of all working people—a blasphemous presidential agenda promoting wealth accumulation among the groups already at the top, the corporate and banking elite through deregulation, as well as intervention by all means at hand from paramilitary operations and targeted assassination to naval forces in the Pacific confronting China and, of course, the recent war in Iraq and continuing one in Afghanistan.
That barely scratches the surface in this almost studied attempt to reverse, overturn, and extinguish the dream of Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial. Listen: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Whether one speaks of racial justice per se or as the precondition for universalized equality (“all of God’s children”), Obama’s policies which have resulted in staggering differences in wealth, large unemployment, the rape of the social safety net through massive military spending and, as we see in Egypt, military aid to dictators who repress their people, are not hopeful signs of the way to justice or equality. Neither is wanted, for both stand in the way of a political consciousness which rules out the slaughter of innocents, surveillance on an unprecedented scale, or cloaking government in extraordinary secrecy.
And further, the beauty of nonviolence, not only as a religious and moral principle, as significant as that is, but also, the steeling of courage to face down the oppressor, the militancy which eschews force and therefore repudiates the entrenched militarism which fuels expansion, intervention, war, and sets the tone for police brutality at home: “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
A true biracial (or now multiracial) unity of spirit and action is precisely what is lacking, and precisely what is greatly feared, today because inceptively it carries with it a class component which, in turn, could lead to questioning the foundations of power in the United States and penetrate the fakery surrounding the administration’s decision-making, whether on humanitarian intervention, climate change, or the rule of law. An activated populace is the last thing wanted. Dr. King continued: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways, and the hotels of the cities…. No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The stream has been reduced to a trickle, if even that, as drone strikes reign down on women and children, dissent becomes suspect, judicial decisions are tortured reasoning on behalf of powerful interests, and government becomes transmogrified into a war-machine partly for reasons of age-old hegemonic aspirations, partly to ensure the deterioration of living conditions at home, the better to keep the people docile, uncritical, accepting of the fate meted out to them. Dr. King went on to lead a Poor People’s Campaign, in order to actuate his dream; Obama, wholly disconnected from the lives and dreams of the poor, knows only capitalism as the god to be served.
When Dr. King goes on to say, “honor in suffering is redemptive,” Obama retreats to the Vineyard in puzzlement. For him, redemption comes from conquest, from looking the other way at—or actually facilitating–outrageous schemes for gathering wealth, and from successfully receding into the bowels of secretive government, where no Manning or Snowden is allowed to disrupt his vainglorious thoughts of consummate leadership. Dr. King wanted “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Obama reverses this, converting hope into despair for much of the world’s population, including those at home.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr: ‘Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence’
Speech at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam.”
Read or listen to the 56-minute speech here: