BILL FLETCHER, billfletcherjr at gmail.com
Fletcher is a columnist for BlackCommentator.com and a senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Fletcher is the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice.
He recently wrote the piece “Claiming and Teaching the 1963 March on Washington.” Here’s an excerpt:
1. The context: The idea for the march in 1963 did not appear out of nowhere, and the fact that A. Philip Randolph originated it was no accident. The notion of the March on Washington in 1963 was, in certain respects, the revival of an idea from 1941 when Randolph convened a group to plan a march on Washington, D.C. to protest the segregation of the growing war industry. That march, which was planned as a black march on Washington, never happened because the mere threat of 100,000 African Americans marching forced President Franklin Roosevelt to give in to the demand for an executive order bringing about formal desegregation of the war industry.
2. The actual march was the result of work that began in the 1950s: Although conceptualized by Randolph, the march was actually the result of the increasing tempo of a social movement. It could not have been organized in a little more than six months—as it was—if it had not been connected to local organizing that had gone on for decades in NAACP youth councils, churches, unions, women’s groups, and more. It was not individuals who chartered buses from all over the country — it was organizations.
3. The march’s principal organizer was Bayard Rustin: This year President Obama will posthumously award Bayard Rustin the Medal of Freedom, however teaching about Rustin complicates the simplistic Civil Rights narrative offered to students by corporate history textbooks. Rustin was a gay pacifist with a long history of organizing, but despite his record of achievements, homophobia led to him being denied the title of national director of the march—technically, he served under Randolph.
Rustin closed the march with a list of demands and had everyone pledge “that I will not relax until victory is won.” [Among the demands: "We demand that there be an increase in the national minimum wage so that men may live in dignity."] He was a complicated character who remained in organized labor and became a mentor to many, especially to younger activists in the burgeoning gay rights movement. At the same time, he refused to later condemn the Vietnam War and was critical of the Black Power Movement.
4. The march was controversial on many levels within the Black Freedom Movement: Individuals, such as Malcolm X, were critical of it, albeit in a contradictory manner, claiming that it would not amount to anything. And there were those within the march who, like then-SNCC chairman John Lewis, wanted a more militant posture.
5. The economic situation for African Americans was not addressed in any fundamental manner in the aftermath of the march: There were periodic improvements, but the crisis that Randolph and the NALC saw brewing in the early 1960s took on the features of a catastrophe by the mid to late 1970s, a fact that we have been living with ever since. Divorcing “civil rights” from economic justice is a feature common to mainstream approaches to history, including those found in school curricula.
6. The entirety of Dr. King’s August 28, 1963 address should be read: What comes across is something very different from the morally righteous and tame “I Have a Dream!” clips and textbook soundbites usually offered around the time of Dr. King’s birthday. In fact, the speech is a militant and audacious indictment of Jim Crow segregation and the situation facing African Americans.
To truly honor the legacy of this anniversary, teachers should have students compare the King of the actual speech with the King from the clips. It would also be useful to have students read and discuss some of the day’s other speeches. For example, in Randolph’s opening speech he proclaimed that those gathered before him represented “the advance guard of a massive moral revolution” aimed at creating a society where “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.” This is a sentiment that we never hear about that day.