The marchers who made the Dream

August 21, 2013

The 1963 March on Washington is one of the most-remembered events of the civil rights movement--but what you learned in school left out a lot, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

THEY CAME from every corner of the country--from New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi--to be at the largest demonstration that Washington, D.C. had ever seen.

Organizer Baynard Rustin captured the mood of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held 50 years ago this August. "It wasn't the Harry Belafontes and the greats from Hollywood that made the march," Rustin said. "What made the march was that Black people voted that day with their feet. They came from every state, they came in jalopies, on trains, buses, anything they could get--some walked."

More than 30 chartered trains and 2,000 buses brought people to the nation's capital. The Brooklyn chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) walked the 230 miles from New York City to D.C.--over a period of 13 days.

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." But other marchers brought homemade signs, with messages like "There Would Be More of Us Here, But So Many of Us Are in Jail. Freedom Now" and "Stop Legal Murders."

The front ranks of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
The front ranks of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (National Archives)

An airplane full of celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, was organized by Harry Belafonte. Singers Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers performed. CBS canceled all its daytime shows to broadcast the entire event, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech was televised around the world.

By 9:30 a.m., some 40,000 people had gathered in the Mall. Two hours later, there were twice as many. When the march stepped off, the crowd was estimated at a quarter of a million people. They were of all ages--college students, union members, families with children, older people. About a fifth of the crowd was white--this was overwhelmingly an African American march for jobs and freedom.

Excitement among the protesters was so great that they began marching on their own--the official heads of the march had to run to get to the front.

THE YEARS leading up to the historic 1963 march were marked by explosive civil rights battles throughout the South and a growing radicalization among many of the people who took part.

The second wave of the civil rights movement had been kicked off three years before by a handful of students in North Carolina who organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters starting in February 1960. In two months' time, lunch counter sit-ins had spread across the South, involving some 50,000 Black and white youth.

In 1961, activists from the recently formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined the Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The goal of the Freedom Rides was to desegregate interstate bus lines throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were attacked by racist mobs, as local cops looked on.

The instinct of the national Democrats--who the civil rights activists initially looked to--was to try to tame the struggle. Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered civil rights activists tax-free status if they would agree to abandon their sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and focus on voter registration.

Recognizing this opportunity for further activism, activists seized on the offer and set up headquarters in Mississippi to register Blacks to vote. Organizers from CORE, SNCC and other groups initiated a campaign to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. In the process, they established Freedom Schools, community centers and other initiatives to aid Blacks living in the poorest state in the country.

At every step of the way, the activists were met with violence from racist terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Councils. While they were harassed, jailed and beaten, the Kennedy administration, unwilling to intervene for fear of offending the segregationist Southern Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party, continued to look the other way.

In April 1963, civil rights activists targeted Birmingham, Ala.--home to notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace and racist Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. When Connor ordered his cops to use clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, it was televised, showing the whole world what Jim Crow rule in the South looked like.

For the activists, the violence begged the question: Why isn't the Kennedy administration doing anything to stop it? And furthermore: How can a country that proclaims itself to be a beacon of democracy to the world be attacking Black children in its streets?

The event helped educate a wider audience about racism in the U.S. South. According to polls at the time, only 4 percent of Americans saw civil rights as a pressing issue before Birmingham. Afterward, that number grew to 52 percent.

The movement didn't stop with the streets of Birmingham. The fight for civil rights spread across the South and around the country. 1963 saw more than 900 demonstrations in more than 100 cities, with more than 20,000 arrested and at least 10 deaths to the civil rights struggle. These protests were putting the Kennedy administration on the spot--pressuring it to make good on its promises of passing stalled civil rights legislation.

The 1963 March on Washington would bring together activists from the movement, but also people who had been radicalized by these events--and by the realities of everyday life for Blacks in the North and the South.

THE OUTRAGE 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 leadership of the march as well--didn't always match the aspirations of marchers.

In their conception of the march, many SNCC activists, including John Lewis, envisioned mass civil disobedience--staging sit-ins and lie-ins across Washington, particularly in the offices of Southern members of Congress. But these more radical plans were halted by more conservative forces that seized leadership of the march organizing.

President John F. Kennedy had tried to stop the march from happening. When that failed, he set out to co-opt it.

In July, there was a march organizing meeting involving 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 Martin Luther King, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the eyes of the more militant activists of CORE and SNCC, the march should be an expression of the growing frustration of Blacks at the federal government failing 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, the focus was on simply getting a Kennedy-backed civil rights bill through Congress. The self-appointed march leaders made every effort to keep the march acceptable to the administration.

This didn't stop FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover--who was particularly inflamed by the march button's image of black and white hands clasped in solidarity--from treating the demonstration as a terrorist plot in the making.

When telling Kennedy that King was under the influence of communists didn't get the march called off, Hoover spared no expense preparing for the violence that never came. Kennedy and the military even drafted a proclamation that would give the go-ahead for 4,000 troops assembled in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.--and 15,000 paratroopers--to break up the demonstration.

Meanwhile, march leaders cut speakers who might sound too radical, such as writer James Baldwin. Others were censored. The day before the march, the planned speech by SNCC John Lewis was revised by organizers. " The original version, to which several SNCC activists had contributed, read:

In good consciousness, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late. 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 in the original speech, exemplified by this section:

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. We will fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.

Even with the revisions, however, the speech Lewis did 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?"

THE CLIMAX of the day in Washington was King's speech. In it, he gave voice to the widespread frustration with the unkept promise of racial equality in the U.S.

[W]e 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable 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, which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

King expressed the urgency of these demands for the civil rights movement--and the fact that activists were no longer content to sit and wait for equality:

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 rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. 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.

For most people, this is King's most recognized speech. It's been used and misused by politicians of many political stripes. As Gary Younge notes in his new book The Speech:

The ability of America's powerful to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of the nation's essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight of hand is often exercised at the same time as attempts to correct the inequalities that made such resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or marginalized...
Sanctified after his death, King's speech would eventually be celebrated by those who actively opposed his efforts whilst he lived.

THE MORE radical version of King--for example, the man who spoke out against the U.S. war in Vietnam a few years later at the Riverside Church in Harlem--hasn't been included in the history books.

By the same token, when we talk about the march itself, it's important to emphasize the struggles that came before and after--including the many much smaller and modest actions and events. The activists who defied Jim Crow to organize the movement should be remembered as the heart and soul of the March on Washington--more so than the people who spoke from the front.

The march drew together both the activists from these fierce struggles, as well as people who were inspired by them--and because of this, it was inspirational on many levels. But it didn't mean that the fight was anywhere near over. The Democratic Party, in particular, continued to drag its feet on civil rights legislation, while simultaneously trying to curb the movement's more radical demands.

After Kennedy's assassination later in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964, finally outlawing Jim Crow segregation. This 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 Democratic politicians had a change of heart, but because of the pressure of the mass civil rights movement across the South and throughout the U.S.

The Democratic Party establishment showed its real allegiances again at the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City. SNCC had organized delegates from the non-segregated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to claim the state's seats from the Dixiecrat delegation. But party liberals led the way in trying to push a rotten compromise on the MFDP. When civil rights delegates refused the urging of figures like Hubert Humphrey--and even Martin Luther King--to retreat, they were escorted out of the convention by police.

These and other betrayals would lead some civil rights activists to reject relying on the Democratic Party--and turn to the more radical ideas, like those of Malcolm X. This set the stage for the the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Never again," SNCC's Cleveland Sellers later recalled, "were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the 'good' people of American could eliminate them. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation."

Others, like John Lewis, would dedicate themselves to the Democratic Party, despite its broken promises.

One of the greatest lessons of the civil rights era is that what we do makes a difference. It was the mass mobilization across the South that defeated Jim Crow segregation--and it was the hundreds of thousands who came to D.C. who made the March on Washington the historic occasion it was.

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