TIME MACHINE: The March on Washington



Today marks the 50th anniversary of the event known as the The March on Washington. Also known as The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom or The Great March on Washington, the famous Civil Rights event took place in Washington D.C., on August 28, 1963. 

The event was organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations under the theme “jobs, and freedom”. Estimates of the number of participants varied from 200,000 to 300,000. Observers also estimated that 75–80% of the marchers were African-Americans. Organization of the march originated with A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council and vice-president of the AFL-CIO and activistBayard Rustin had begin planning the march as early as December 1962. They hoped for two days of protest that included sit-ins and lobbying, followed by a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Randolph and Rustin wanted to focus on joblessness and to call for a public works program that would employ blacks. In early 1963, they publicly announced “a massive March on Washington for jobs”. Amalgamated Clothing Workers unionist Stanley Aronowitz gathered support from radical union organizers who could be trusted not to report their plans to the Kennedy administration. The unionists offered tentative support for a march that would be focused on jobs.

Without securing the cooperation of the NAACP or the Urban League, Randolph announced an “October Emancipation March on Washington for Jobs” on May 15, 1963. He reached out to union leaders, winning the support of the UAW’s Walter Reuther, but not of AFL–CIO president George Meany. Randolph and Rustin intended to focus the March on economic inequality, stating in their original plan that “integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists”. While negotiating with other leaders, the pair expanded their stated objectives to “Jobs and Freedom”, acknowledging the agenda of groups that focused more on civil rights. A coalition of civil rights and union leaders known as “the Big Six”, which included Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., met with President John F. Kennedy on June 22, 1963. Kennedy warned against creating “an atmosphere of intimidation” by bringing a large crowd to the nation’s capital. The activists insisted on holding the march. After a good deal of negotiations with the Kennedy administration and with the different activist groups, finally agreed to a date in late August for the march.

While the event was being organized, it encountered a great deal of opposition from the country’s conservative element. Many conservative politicians branded the event as being organized and inspired by Communists, despite the planners’ rejection of help from Communist groups. This mindset was especially espoused by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who singled out Rustin as a Communist and homosexual. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an investigation into the event’s organizers for any Communist ties. When he received a report citing Communists’ failure to infiltrate the Civil Rights movement, Hoover immediately rejected it. However, opposition to the event also came from liberal activists. Rustin harbored doubts due to his fears that the march might turn violent. Malcolm X, spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, condemned the event as a joke as labeled it the “farce on Washington”.

On August 28, 1963; participants who lived outside of the Washington D.C. area arrived in large numbers. The event attracted a media assembly larger than President Kennedy’s inauguration over two years ago. The march failed to start on time, due to its leaders meeting with members of Congress. To their surprise, the participants began the march at the Washington Monument and headed for the Lincoln Memorial. The event’s leaders arrived late and linked arms in front of the marchers on Constitution Avenue in order to be photographed leading the march. At least 50 members of the American Nazi Party staged a counter-protest, but were dispersed by the local police. Most of the city’s citizens stayed at home and watched the event on television. The official program, which began after the march reached the Lincoln Memorial included performances by Camilla Williams (who sang the National Anthem), Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta Holmes and the group – Peter, Paul and Mary. Speakers included both Randolph and Rustin, John Lewis (of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe), Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress, and Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays, who closed the program. Roy Wilkins announced activist W.E.B. DuBois’ death, which occurred the night before. However, the highlight of the event proved to be Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Historians and activists have been debating on the consequences of the March for the past five decades. Many radicals have embraced Malcolm X’s criticism of the event as a co-optation of the white establishment. Others tend to focus more on King’s famous speech and the civil rights legislative successes that followed in 1964 and 1965. And recently, many historians have been focusing on Bayard Rustin’s organization of the event. Just recently, President Barack Obama The symbo of the March has been contested since before it even took place. In the years following the March, movement radicals increasingly subscribed to Malcolm X’s narrative of the March as a co-optation by the white establishment. Liberals and conservatives tended to embrace the March, but focused mostly on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the legislative successes of 1964 and 1965, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The cooperation of the Kennedy Democratic administration on the issue of civil rights led the Democrats to give up its Southern Democratic support, undivided since Reconstruction to lure a high proportion of black votes from the Republican Party. More recently, historians and commentators have acknowledged the role played by Bayard Rustin in organizing the event. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 8 of this year. There was one negative consequence from the March. Two months after the event, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy gave Hoover and the F.B.I. permission to initially begin a wiretapping campaign against Dr. King. It lasted until the activist’s death in April 1968.

For more information about the March on Washington, check out the following books:

*“The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights” by William P. Jones

*“Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington”> by Charles Euchner