The part of the dream they forget

January 21, 2013

Marlene Martin looks back at one of the most famous moments of the civil rights movement--and remembers the forgotten parts of a historic demonstration.

IN A hilarious scene from the TV show Parks and Recreation, one of the not-too-bright characters is taking the final oral exam for a women's studies class. The professor asks him to speak freely about what he got out of the class, and his eyes turn up to the ceiling, as he tries to dig up an answer. Then he blurts out the birthdate and birthplace of Susan B. Anthony--obviously memorized, but without a clue as to who she was or what she did.

It's a funny moment, but not really so funny when you think about it. This is exactly how the education system is set up to teach history--memorizing the names of "important" people and the dates of "important" events.

Unfortunately, this holds true for the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., too. Many people will remember the year and the place he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech (1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and know that he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. But far fewer will know the reason King was in Memphis--to give support to striking sanitation workers--or the background to the 1963 March on Washington.

Marching for jobs and freedom in Washington in 1963
Marching for jobs and freedom in Washington in 1963

EVEN THE "I Have a Dream" speech itself is remembered selectively. The most quoted and emphasized part is where King talks so eloquently about his vision of a more just society:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

But there is much more to what King had to say. For example, at the outset, King talks about the legacy of slavery and its lasting impact on the U.S. and on Blacks: "One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

King then goes on to talk about civil rights as an issue of reparations for centuries of injustice--an idea that would certainly alarm today's politicians who praise King:

In a sense, we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men--yes, Black men as well as white men--would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check--a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King then speaks out against the message of moderation coming from some conservative currents in the movement:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. 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 quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood...

Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

The full name of the 1963 march was "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." It was spearheaded by labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the march's chief organizer Bayard Rustin, along with King and other leaders of civil rights organizations.

One goal was to pressure the Democratic Kennedy administration and Congress to pass civil rights legislation. But the march also raised broader questions, including the need for economic equality. The march's 10 demands included calls to outlaw discrimination in housing and education and to ensure voting rights, but there were also concrete proposals toward achieving economic equality, such as increasing the minimum wage to $2 an hour (at the time, it was $1.15).

One particularly radical demand declared that every person in the U.S. had the right to a decent job, and that the government must take steps to ensure this. The demand called on Congress to set up a "massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers--Negro and white--on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages."

In two years' time, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act--the two main pieces of civil rights legislation banning Jim Crow segregation and guaranteeing the right to vote--had become law. But the march's economic demands were never taken up, and still haven't been.

ANOTHER ASPECT of the March on Washington that people know little about is the criticism and controversy it stirred up.

Malcolm X criticized the march as nothing but a pep rally for the Kennedy administration. He pointed out how radical sentiments in favor of the march had been blunted by organizers who left no "logistics aspect uncontrolled." For example, there were instructions barring homemade signs that would compete with pre-printed placards and limiting marches to singing one song only: "We Shall Overcome." "It had become an outing, a picnic," Malcolm said of what he called the "Farce on Washington."

Women like Ella Baker, Daisy Bates and Rosa Parks, who were so prominent in the movement, weren't featured speakers during the three-hour program. The women's movement was yet to come.

The biggest controversy of the march involved the censoring of a radical speech by John Lewis, who was representing the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the young activists formed out of the lunch counter sit-in movement.

King and other march organizers insisted that Lewis moderate his speech, which they claimed would alienate the Democratic White House. Lewis resisted, but did, in the end, amend parts of it, deleting phrases such as: "I want to know, which side is the federal government on?"

Despite this, Lewis still called out the Democrats for their failure to stand up for civil rights, especially to protect those who spoke out in the South. "Where is our party?" Lewis asked. "Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?"

The response of young civil rights activists to the way the march was portrayed in the media reflected their growing radicalization. They were frustrated by the federal government's inaction toward any civil rights initiatives. It was becoming clear to them that more radical action would be necessary. As Lewis wrote after the march:

Too many commentators and reporters softened and trivialized the hard edges of pain and suffering that brought about this day in the first place, virtually ignoring the hard issues that needed to be addressed, the issues that had stirred up so much trouble in my own speech. It was revealing that the quotes they gathered from most of the congressional leaders on Capitol Hill dealt not with the legislators' stand on the civil rights bill, but instead focused on praising the "behavior" and "peacefulness" of the mass marchers.

Still, despite the weaknesses and the valid criticisms, the March on Washington was a remarkable event. At a time when national mobilizations were few and far between, it was a gathering of as many as 300,000 people, mainly African American, demanding jobs and freedom. It had a huge impact in society, even if the politicians and the media tried to ignore the most radical elements.

Participants understood now that the fight was not just on the local level--they saw how their demands could be pushed on a national level. As one marcher later recalled:

For six months before the march, I had been active with CORE in the West. But fear of consequences--from parents, from school, for future employment--held me back from courting arrest with acts of civil disobedience. When I returned from Washington, that was all changed. In the following months, I dropped out of school and became a full-time activist. I was arrested a number of times. Then I went South and served as an SCLC field secretary in Alabama and Mississippi for two years.

There were many more who were similarly transformed. As marcher Lerone Bennett wrote, "The participants knew that even if the march had changed no votes in Congress or hearts in American, it had changed them."

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