Today, it is not uncommon to witness public demonstrations for any of a number of grievances or perceived injustices. Countless demonstrations are frequently held, ranging from small community protests against police brutality and gang violence to larger gatherings when an incident such as the “Jena Six” trials or the devastation from a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina bruise the public consciousness. The frequency by which protests occur has somewhat diluted their potency as an effective device to call attention to injustices. In fact, the idea of a “march” has become so passé that a generation of Blacks has become dismissive of it as a tool to bring about social change. This was not always the case. There was a time when a single march redefined what it meant to be Black in America.
Forty five years ago Blacks descended upon Washington, DC on August 28 to take part in what was then the largest public demonstration of its kind in the nation’s history. Now popularly referred to as the “March on Washington,” the gathering’s official title was the “March for Jobs and Freedom.” It was the realization of legendary labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s longtime call to redress economic injustices before the federal government. As if the day needed a punctuation mark, one of the early announcements marchers heard was the news that NAACP founder and scholar Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois had passed away the prior evening in Accra, Ghana. It was perhaps the symbolic and literal passing of the torch from a generation of “race men and women” to a new leadership cadre that was intent on transforming the country’s racial paradigm.
The march brought together the leading civil rights organizations of the day, from the more centrist NAACP to the faith based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and grassroots Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), to the student led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the latter popularly known as “SNICK. “ It was a time when civil rights advocacy was at its heyday and the organizations involved were at their zenith in serving as the conduits for Blacks grievances. Almost five decades later it is hard to imagine a time when there was such command among Black organizations that they could bring masses of people together on a singular mission. It was also a period in which both houses of Congress were overwhelmingly populated by white males, many from the south and most from the south proud Jim Crow segregationists.
Today the march is mostly remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King’s dynamic speech, an oration known as the “I Have a Dream” speech that stands out as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Yet, as central as King’s speech is to the institutional memory of that event, it has overwhelmed the recollection of what was at stake on that hot August day as the presence of the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln was felt by the sea of humanity assembled on the Mall. Dr. King’s speech, highly anticipated, was at once inspirational and pragmatic, and in some passages downright angry over the treatment of Blacks in the United States. Still, the King speech is so big in its legend that the significance of what took place 45 years ago should be acknowledged and not overlooked.
It was a tense time in this country’s history when legalized segregation was a distinctly southern heirloom and many in the north embraced de facto segregation as a way of life. Despite being eight years from the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the country was still sharply divided over the recognition of Blacks as full citizens. Even the well organized lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro several years earlier, and similar acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest Jim Crow, had failed to spur the federal government into action. The Kennedy administration, though well received by Blacks, had moved gingerly on civil rights; the young President particularly cautious not to make waves among the southern flank of the Democratic Party. Though President Kennedy had supported the enrollment of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi by sending in federal troops and U.S. Marshals, the climate in Washington was not what many civil rights activists, including students aligned with CORE and SNCC, had anticipated from the results of the 1960 election.
Even the most violent acts of homegrown terrorism committed by the Ku Klux Klan, and overtly discriminatory practices endorsed by White Citizen Councils, were accepted by many white southerners and conveniently ignored by many in the north and west. It was an era when a look, gesture or simply being in the wrong place could be a death sentence if you were Black, with mob violence still en vogue and southern “justice” often resulting in a noose. The north had its own dynamic, often conveniently ignored by historical accounts of the period. Blacks had moved northward in unprecedented numbers during the “Great Migration” of the 1930’s and 1940’s, seeking work in places like Chicago, Detroit and Newark but still sequestered in segregated communities. And violence against Blacks occurred in the north as well though not with the same organized efficiency as in the south. It was a time when the simple objection to inhumane conditions was an act of defiance by Black Americans.
In 1963 the idea of a gathering of Blacks in the nation’s capital to demand justice was a bold move for the times. Civil rights leaders took a calculated risk in that there had never been a demonstration on that scale and there was no assurance that marchers coming to a southern city, not far from a hotbed of resistance – Virginia – would encounter violence by foes. Luckily for the organizations behind the march they had the organizing genius of Bayard Rustin shepherding the plans for the gathering, and they were executed flawlessly. The success in enlisting the support of organized labor and the rallying of some of Hollywood’s celebrity circle and New York’s elite served as an insurance policy that every effort would be made by the administration to make certain the march went off without incident. It did, and the rest, as is often said, is history.
The breadth of change for Blacks that resulted from the March on Washington may never again be realized by any singular event. The Kennedy administration saw a political opening and began to make plans to move legislation through Congress. One year later President Lyndon Johnson picking up the mantle in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. It would set the stage for voting rights legislation just a year later and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Chances are Thurgood Marshall may have never made it to the Supreme Court had not the march emboldened some, and given cover to others, on Capitol Hill to support Johnson’s nominee; though it was no simple matter in getting the famed NAACP lawyer confirmed to the high Court.
In many ways the March on Washington was the definitive statement of the civil rights movement and its significance cannot be overstated when considering the factors that changed the nation. Judging from the rapid string of “victories” following that hot August day, the march stands out as a pivotal event that has yet to be replicated in terms of its impact on policy outcomes. While other public demonstrations have since eclipsed the 1963 march in size, none have been the catalyst for such wide and sweeping social change.