Those of us who gathered on the Washington Mall 50 years ago felt the winds of change at our backs. We sensed across that long, hot day — as we walked tightly together, then rested, then listened, then sang — that what was happening was epochal.
We knew we were embracing a new generation of leaders, even as we bowed deeply to the statesmen whose work had bridged the post-Reconstruction and modern civil rights eras: W. E. B. DuBois, who passed away a day before the march, and A. Philip Randolph, who had initiated the March on Washington Movement.
We knew that the umbrella under which we all marched that day — unions, faith communities, black rights organizations — was both broad and fragile. It was, palpably for those of us who were present, and ultimately in the judgment of history, a nation-creating moment.
Thousands of marchers who were barred from the polls in their Deep South communities transformed the national agenda, reinforcing the vitality of demonstrative political engagement as an exciting alternative to electoral politics, and opening up the Washington stage for hundreds of subsequent “outsider” mobilizations.
We marched past a wavering president, a cabal of southern senators, and a malicious FBI director to pursue claims outside of the formal political practices that had failed so miserably to take account of the movement’s uncomplicated demands.
Although high oratory lifted our hearts, what seemed more tangible was the feeling that by gathering as a group of 250,000, we had made our movement safer: We were “out,” to steal a metaphor, we had proclaimed our political space, earned sustained media attention, and thereby, we hoped, attained some physical safety from the pervasive violence that threatened to snuff out the movement in the South.
How wrong we were. The bomb that tore apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, destroyed that myth, as did the attack on the nine Little Rock high school students that same month.
In its audacity, ambition and majesty, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was unparalleled. Sandwiched between the Freedom Ride campaigns, which brought northerners in substantial numbers into the southern movement, and the Freedom Summer, which augmented those numbers, the march illustrated both the national character of the racial crisis and the multiracial commitment to address it. It transformed local preachers into national leaders.
A faithful account of the march, however, should also underscore that it represented the pinnacle of a long campaign to bring the the black protest movement to Washington. As he deftly articulated the wide-ranging claims of the marchers, seeking, in his grand baritone voice and meticulously selected words, to quiet the anxieties of moderates, tamp down the restlessness of radicals, and fend off McCarthyites, A. Philip Randolph, then 74, enjoyed the fulfillment of his own dream.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had turned Randolph away when, in 1941, the former head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters insisted that the government require defense contractors to hire equally and to desegregate the armed forces. Randolph threatened to “wake up Washington” with a massive demonstration of black workers and their families. While political demonstrations in the Capitol were not new, blacks amassing in such numbers would have been unprecedented. Alarmed by the prospect and its eager promotion by the black press, the president offered half a loaf, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee, and the July 1941 march, which had been predicted to attract 100,000, was canceled.
Randolph continued to lead the movement, deploying popular rallies as a militant complement to the legal strategies of the NAACP and sought, with uneven success, to hold accountable FDR’s new civil rights apparatus. On May 17, 1957 Randolph brought 30,000 demonstrators to the Capitol to protest the South’s refusal to implement the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order. Although his gift for leadership was by then widely acknowledged, this was Martin Luther King Jr’s first appearance before so large a national black audience, and auspiciously he took advantage of it to propose a national voting rights campaign.
This past Saturday’s March on Washington, commemorative in its origins, reprises the actions of the 1940s and 50s, as well as 1963, and can be said to reflect the current demands of a longstanding, continuous movement. Remarkably, jobs, votes, and justice are still at the top of the agenda.
History suggests that in our country, such gatherings, particularly at the Lincoln Memorial, offer unique opportunities for political realignment outside broken formal structures of government. However different those structures are today, and however altered our national identity, evidence of a racial crisis remains hauntingly familiar. It’s time for a new nation-creating moment.
- Michael P. Jeffries: Before King’s Inspiring ‘Dream,’ There Was Randolph’s Powerful Critique
- More essays by Margaret Burnham
- Listen to Margaret Burnham and others on Here & Now: 50th Anniversary Of March On Washington