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Forty years since the civil rights march that changed U.S. politics
Hidden story of the March on Washington

August 22, 2003 | Page 12

AUGUST 28 marks four decades since the historic 1963 March on Washington, and every year, politicians of all stripes commemorate the enormous civil rights march. Most remembered are the famous words spoken by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

But seldom remembered are the words that were never spoken from the podium that day--words that reflected the frustrations many civil rights activists felt about the Kennedy administration's foot-dragging on the promise of equality for Black America. ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells that hidden story.

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THEY CAME from every corner of the country--New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi--to Washington, D.C., on August 29, 1963, for the largest gathering of its kind ever. More than 30 chartered trains and 2,000 buses brought people to the capital. The Brooklyn chapter of Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) walked 230 miles--for 13 days--to the march.

The United Auto Workers, one of the march sponsors, printed hundreds of signs with slogans such as "UAW Says Jobs and Freedom for Every American." An airplane full of celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, James Garner, Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, was organized by Harry Belafonte.

Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers performed. CBS canceled all its daytime shows to broadcast the entire event, and King's speech was televised around the world. Excitement among protesters was so great that they began marching on their own, and the official march leaders had to run to the front, linking arms, to get their photo taken leading the demonstration.

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A SERIES of explosive civil rights battles marked the years leading up to the protest. What had begun as lunch counter sit-ins by a handful of Black students in North Carolina in February, 1960, by April had grown into actions involving some 50,000 Black and white students across the South.

In 1961, activists in the newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined Freedom Rides spearheaded by CORE aimed at desegregating interstate bus lines throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were attacked by racist mobs, as local cops looked on.

The Kennedy administration, unwilling to intervene for fear of offending the segregationist Southern Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party, tried instead to cut a deal with civil rights activists. Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered civil rights activists tax-free status if they abandoned their sit-ins and freedom rides and focused on voter registration.

Activists took Kennedy up on the offer and set up headquarters in Mississippi to register Blacks to vote. While the Kennedy administration looked the other way, civil rights activists were harassed and jailed by local police.

In April 1963, antiracists targeted Birmingham, Ala.--home to notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace and racist chief of police Eugene "Bull" Connor. When Connor unleashed clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, it was televised, sending a message to the whole world about what Jim Crow rule looked like in the South--and that the Kennedy administration was doing nothing to stop it.

The outcry over Bull Connor's crackdown forced Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill in Congress--and fueled the enormous turnout to the March on Washington. But the aims of the Kennedy administration--and the march leadership--didn't match the aspirations of marchers.

Organizing had begun in July with a meeting of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders--A. Philip Randolph, who had led the aborted March on Washington movement in 1941; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; James Farmer of CORE; John Lewis of SNCC; Whitney Young Jr. of the Urban League; and King, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

President John F. Kennedy originally tried to stop the march from happening. When he could not do that, he set out to co-opt it. In the eyes of the more militant activists in CORE and SNCC, the march was to be an expression of the growing frustration of Blacks at the federal government's failure to take a side in the fight against the Jim Crow South.

But for the more conservative civil rights leaders, such as the NAACP's Wilkins, there was a far less radical agenda of getting a Kennedy-backed civil rights bill through Congress. The self-appointed march leaders made every effort to make the march as acceptable to the administration as possible.

On the right, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to stop the protest by informing Kennedy that King was being coached by communists. In case of violence, Kennedy and the military even drafted a proclamation that would give the go-ahead for 4,000 troops assembled in the suburbs--and 15,000 paratroopers--to break up the demonstration.

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MARCH LEADERS cut speakers who might sound too radical, such as writer James Baldwin. Others were censored. The day before the march, cuts were made to a planned speech by SNCC's John Lewis.

"In good consciousness, we cannot support the administrations' civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late," read the original version of the speech, to which several SNCC activists had contributed. "There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality...What is in the bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid that makes $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?"

Objections were also raised to Lewis' angry tone. "We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground--nonviolently," read the earlier version. "We will fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy."

Even with the revisions, the speech that Lewis did give managed to ask a critical question: "Where is our party? Where is the party that will make it unnecessary for us to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?"

So while the march was inspirational on many levels, some front-line activists drew the same conclusions as Malcolm X, who called it "the farce on Washington." After Kennedy's assassination later that year, it was left to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to push the civil rights bill through Congress in 1964.

The law finally outlawed Jim Crow segregation--a century after the Civil War ended slavery. It was followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed Southern Blacks the right to vote. The laws passed not because of Democratic politicians' change of heart, but because of the pressure of the mass civil rights movement across the South and throughout the U.S.

Indeed, the Democratic Party establishment showed their true colors again at the party's 1964 convention in Atlantic City, when SNCC organized delegates of a non-segregated party--the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party--to take their rightful seats in place of the Dixiecrats. When the delegates refused the urging of party liberals like Hubert Humphrey and even King to retreat, they were escorted out of the convention by police.

These betrayals would lead some civil rights activists to reject relying on the Democratic Party--and turn to the more radical ideas of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Others would later become part of the Democratic Party machine, like Lewis, a congressional representative for Georgia.

In the history books, Kennedy and the Democratic Party are remembered as friends to the civil rights movement. But actual events showed that Kennedy and Johnson always preferred to pander to racists in the Southern Democratic Party rather than take a stand against Jim Crow--until the movement forced them to make concessions.

It's an important lesson for today, as schools around the U.S. are re-segregating, affirmative action programs are being cut to ribbons, and Blacks must riot to bring attention to racist police brutality in Benton Harbor, Mich. Our demands won't be won by making concessions to the powers that be--they have to be fought for.

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