We remember the 1963 March on Washington now for Dr. Martin Luther King's most famous speech that day, 'I Have A Dream'. But, the March itself was a major watershed moment in American politics and the first such march of its kind, a mass protest march on the capital city. Such marches are commonplace spectacles now, but they were completely new and unknown in 1963. The Washington DC police and the National Park Service now view these marches as matters of routine complete with protocols and procedures. There were no such protocols in 1963. Washington DC was filled with anxiety in the days leading up to the March. One editor in Life magazine said that Washington had not experienced such 'invasion' jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Local authorities feared rioting. Bars and liquor stores were closed for the day. All of the police force was assigned duty that day plus firefighters who were deputized. National Guard units and all the military bases in the area were put on alert. The last thing the Kennedy White House wanted was a repeat of the violence in Birmingham, Alabama in the nation's capital.
The days leading up to the March were filled with threats and dire warnings. The sound system at the Lincoln Memorial was vandalized the night before the March. The Army Signal Corps repaired it only after hours of phone calls from March organizers. People arriving by bus and by train to participate in the March did not know what to expect and were afraid.
And arrive they did by the tens of thousands.
Buses left from Boston to Little Rock carrying people to the March; 450 charter buses left from Harlem full of Marchers. Most buses traveled through the night to get to Washington.
What strikes me when I see pictures of the Marchers, and read and hear their memories is not only how serious the occasion was, but how happy people were to be there. Some remember the March as one of the happiest experiences of their lives.
Having been to 2 such marches in Washington myself, I remember the experience. I remember the happiness. I especially remember that the 1993 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights had that quality of joy, from the bus ride down to the bus ride back. I met new friends at the 1993 March and ran into old friends there. I remember the exhilaration I felt seeing the crowds get larger and denser as we walked from the buses to the Mall, and I will never forget the spectacle of subway stations and stairways packed with marchers. I can only imagine what the Marchers in 1963 must have felt, especially those many who went through so much to get there.
The 1963 March was the culmination of 9 months of planning and negotiations by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Randolph envisioned a march for economic justice and civil rights from the beginning. Organized Labor was divided over the March. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers played an integral role in planning the March. Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers enthusiastically supported the March and joined it. George Meaney of the AFL-CIO wanted nothing to do with it.
We forget how central a role issues of economic justice played in the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King to the end insisted that there is no freedom in poverty, that the freedom to starve is no freedom at all. The participation of so much organized labor in the March created an opportunity for racist demagogues (like Strom Thurmond) to declare that the March was communist and subversive.
Dr. Martin Luther King was the featured speaker at the March, but it was not his idea and he did not organize it. The March was the culmination of a vision of A. Phillip Randolph that dated back to the 1940s, to the Second World War when he first proposed a march on Washington to demand fair pay for war workers and soldiers. He called off the march when Franklin Roosevelt ordered an end to pay discrimination in the war effort. The Civil Rights movement which began in the 1950s brought that idea back and expanded it further. Bayard Rustin did the actual organizing and the negotiating with regional civil rights leaders, labor leaders, political leaders, church leaders, the Washington DC police, and the Kennedy administration to make the March happen. For all his hard work, he was rewarded with scorn and obscurity. Rustin was openly gay, a pacifist, and a former communist. Strom Thurmond and J. Edgar Hoover tried to make Rustin a lightning rod and use him to scuttle the whole March. There were a lot of people in the leadership of the March who were hostile to Rustin. Indeed, later Black radicals vilified Rustin and made him an object of homophobic scorn and hatred. Rustin largely stayed behind the scenes, but Life magazine's cover on the March featured him together with Randolph.
It is only now, 50 years later, that Rustin will be posthumously recognized for his work on the March and awarded the Medal of Freedom.
Amazingly, all three major networks broadcast the March on teevee. That kind of coverage would be unimaginable now (the only exception I can think of now would be Fox News covering Tea Party rallies in Washington).
That's the thing I always find to be so remarkable about politics, especially in a democracy; just showing up really matters. Freedom and Dignity mattered to enough people in August of 1963 to show up in numbers estimated at 200,000 to 300,000, the largest rally ever seen in Washington up to that time. Of those hundreds of thousands, an estimated 60,000 were white or not Black. That huge turnout by everyone mattered, creating the critical mass to push the Civil Rights movement to the next level and to create the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Act in the following year, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. What's more, the March on Washington in 1963 was one of those very rare and fleeting moments when the USA (or at least a part of it) really did become a living embodiment of Freedom, Justice, and Equality, where Dr. King's vision of the Beloved Community came to pass if only for an instant in that one place.
A very striking photograph of the March from the Lincoln Memorial by James KW Atherton
An almost forgotten highlight of the 1963 March, Mahalia Jackson:
A group from Brooklyn, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) walked the whole way from Brooklyn to Washington DC. It took them 13 days walking down US 1.
Here are the memories of one of those marchers, Lawrence Cumberbatch, who was 16 at the time.
Here is an excellent article by Harold Meyerson on the circle of socialists around Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, and the central role labor movements played in the conception and organization of the 1963 March on Washington. A forgotten centerpiece of the March and the whole Civil Rights movement is economic justice.
From Meyerson's essay:
King’s speech, of course, was the part of the rally that immediately became history, and rightly so. But neither he nor the other speakers focused exclusively on the kind of racial discrimination that Kennedy’s bill would outlaw. A look at the signs that the marchers carried, or a reading of the speeches they heard, makes clear that the need to create a more just economy was a central theme as well. “Yes, we want public accommodations open to all citizens,” Randolph proclaimed in the speech that opened the rally, “but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.” Two days later, he made this argument even more pointedly at a post-march conference convened by the Socialist Party. “The white sharecroppers of the South have full civil rights,” he said, “but live in the bleakest poverty.”