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The March on Washington Was 22 Years in the Making

The March on Washington Was 22 Years in the Making

By Carl M. Cannon - August 26, 2013

On Wednesday, President Obama will speak at a 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. He will not be the only speaker, any more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the only speaker on August 28, 1963.

Today, the shorthand for that great event is King’s soaring “I Have a Dream Speech.” But although the good reverend was the civil rights movement’s most eloquent spokesman, he was not the organizer of that march, which was 22 years in the making.

On August 20, 1963, at the 60th news conference of his presidency(!), John F. Kennedy was asked about the upcoming march. His answer was halting and only vaguely supportive—almost non-committal, really. It was as if JFK wanted to know how things would turn out before he declared himself.

“I think it is appropriate that these people and anyone else who feels themselves—who are concerned—should come to Washington, see their congressmen, and see any of us if they feel that it is in the public interest,” Kennedy said.

Asked if he was planning to participate himself, the president replied, “No,” adding that he had been asked by the leaders of the march for a meeting at the White House and that he was “glad” to comply with that request.

Twice, Kennedy mentioned the right of marchers to express their views to Congress. But for many years civil rights leaders had developed a strategy of treating the man in the Oval Office as their primary target audience. In their minds, the pivotal president until then, particularly among the Democrats, was Harry Truman.

Woodrow Wilson’s administration had re-segregated the federal workforce. Franklin Roosevelt had refused to insist on an anti-lynching plank in the Democratic Platform despite entreaties from political allies ranging from labor leader A. Philip Randolph to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

It was Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who first came up with the idea of a march on Washington—in 1941. As the industrial might of the United States shifted to a wartime footing, Randolph remonstrated with FDR on the fact that blacks were being systematically shut out of jobs in the defense plants. Getting nowhere, in May 1941, Randolph issued a call for an “all out, thundering march on Washington” that would culminate in a “huge demonstration” at the Lincoln Memorial.

In June, Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders, who predicted a crowd of 100,000. FDR’s initial response was a mildly phrased memo to the federal Office of Personnel Management encouraging the use of the full “productive power” of the U.S. workforce. Considering this language meaningless, Randolph continued preparations for a July 1, 1941 march.

Roosevelt was worried. During World War I, Randolph had agitated against blacks serving in the armed forces of a nation that didn’t grant them full equality. With America being drawn inexorably into World War II, Randolph was talking this way again. FDR didn’t want this issue to re-surface in a prominent way, and a week before the 1941 march was scheduled to take place, he issued a strongly worded executive order essentially barring Jim Crow from the defense industry. The 1941 march was cancelled. Or, maybe just postponed.

After the war ended, Randolph pressed his case with FDR’s successor. In a letter to Harry Truman, Randolph warned that many blacks would be unwilling to serve in uniform unless the armed services were integrated. At a March 22, 1948 meeting with Truman attended by some 20 civil rights leaders and White House aides, Randolph stated his long held view with uncommon bluntness.

“Mr. President,” he said, “Negroes are in no mood to shoulder a gun for democracy abroad so long as they are denied democracy here at home.”

Although Truman was already on record as expressing outrage at the treatment of returning black servicemen in the South, he bristled at this veiled threat.

“Mr. Randolph,” the commander-in-chief replied, “I wish you hadn’t made that statement.”

But the visiting civil rights leaders pressed the point, albeit in more diplomatic language. “When Negroes came back from the First World War… they marched down 5th Avenue singing ‘Over There, Over There’ [and] Negroes applauded them to the highest heaven,” NAACP official Charles Houston told the president. “But it wasn’t long before these very men were being lynched and abuse by their own white countrymen. And this is a deep sore in the heart of the Negro community and something has got to be done about it.”

Truman surprised the visiting civil rights leaders by agreeing with them, and vowing to do something about it himself.

Four months later, A. Philip Randolph picketed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, carrying a sign reading, “Prison is better than Jim Crow service.” At this convention, however, the action was inside the hall: Hubert Humphrey issued his famous call for Democrats to emerge from the “shadow of states’ rights and into the sunshine of human rights,” while Strom Thurmond led a “Dixiecrat” walkout.

Nine days later, Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. armed forces. But change was slow in coming.

Randolph and the other civil rights leaders, notably Bayard Rustin, had long maintained that segregation and economic immobility for blacks were twin pillars of interrelated injustices with institutional racism as the underlying problem.

The post-war economic boom of the 1950s had largely left blacks in the dust; it was time, Rustin told Randolph in a January 1963 letter, to revive the idea of a massive demonstration in Washington. Its theme—and its formal name—would be “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” But the violence unleashed on civil rights marchers in Birmingham and elsewhere that year crystallized the focus of the march.

In a June 22 meeting at the White House, President Kennedy suggested to civil rights leaders that their planned August march, which would coincide with the plans of Southern senators to filibuster a voting rights bill, might be counterproductive. “We want success in the Congress, not a big show on the Capitol,” Kennedy told them. Martin Luther King replied that a show of force on the mall and action in the halls of Congress were “not antagonistic alternatives.”

And so on this date 50 years ago, Americans awakened to find in their morning newspapers a statement from the so-called “Big Ten” leaders of the march. The event was more than a demonstration, they said. It was, they proclaimed, “a living petition” conceived as an outpouring of the feelings of millions of Americans, black and white, who believe “that the time has come for the government of the United States of America, and particularly for the Congress of that government, to grant and guarantee complete equality in citizenship to the Negro minority of our population.”

(Besides Randolph, Rustin, and King, the others were Walter P. Reuther, head of the United Automobile Workers; John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality; Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; Eugene Carson Blake, representing the National Council of Churches; Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress.)

“It will be orderly, but not subservient,” these leaders said of their planned demonstration. “It will be proud, but not arrogant. It will be non-violent, but not timid. It will be unified in purposes and behavior, not splintered into groups and individual competitors.”

This was their dream. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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