today in black history

June 23, 2024

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was born on this date in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia.

Remembering the Great March

POSTED: August 13, 2013, 12:00 am

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On August 28, 1963 America came face-to-face with the reality of the remnants of its Civil War as one quarter of a million citizens converged on the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Originally conceived by Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the demonstration, the largest of its kind up to that point in the nation’s history, brought into clear focus the hypocrisy of Jim Crow and the demands by African-Americans for justice and equal treatment under the law. The march was the culmination of several events, including Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the murder of Emmett Till, which ushered in a new era of Black civil rights advocacy. It was perhaps not since the NAACP Silent March on New York City’s Fifth Avenue had there been such a display of Black determination and progressive white concurrence witnessed in the United States and in full view of the world.

The March on Washington was also a test of the abilities, competence and sheer will of civil rights organizations to set aside individual agendas and egos to display a unity that often was absent in the backroom dealings of that period. Names that are now considered iconic in American history were in 1963 simply the roll call of leaders struggling to dismantle segregation in America. With the Civil War just 100 years in the nation’s rear view, this event was a test of the capacity of a new generation of Black leadership to not only sway public opinion but to use the momentum of the march to push federal legislation to enlarge rights for African-Americans. With so much at stake, a nervous President John F. Kennedy watched the march unfold on a television in the Oval Office, waiting to assess how he should proceed pushing a civil rights bill. Fate would not give him much time after the March on Washington to do so.

The tone of the march was set, and divinely so, thousands of miles away in Africa the evening before the proceedings began. As if God was making the historical link between slavery and present day, in Accra, Ghana the NAACP founder and “race man” Dr. W.E.B DuBois was taking his last breath. The man who had so eloquently defined the problem of the 20th century in America as that of the “color line” was facing a sunset on the soil of the continent of African-Americans’ ancestors. His passing seemed a purposeful transition, a demarcation of the post-Reconstruction American experience and the unfolding of a new era of rights as the century approached a close. It was like Moses seeing the “Promised Land” but signaling his acceptance of his fate and turning the final trek over to Joshua. Standing in the wings in Washington, DC was a young man who was shouldering the burden of bringing Blacks into full citizenship.

The historic march brought together a collection of established and new organizations, the young and old, and organized labor. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), at the time under the leadership of Roy Wilkins, was the epitome of the civil rights establishment; followed closely by the National Urban League under Whitney Young. The organization that was coming to DC with the highest profile though was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), guided by a young Baptist minister who had made a name for himself as the public face of the bus boycott in Montgomery almost ten years earlier. The public was anxious to hear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he had become the symbolic head of the civil rights movement. There was also the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the more activist and grassroots oriented of the Big 4 civil rights groups. It was CORE that courageously led the Freedom Rides and brought young people, white and Black, to southern states to register Blacks to vote. Young people were also represented by their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) or “SNICK.” Black teenagers and college students had played a pivotal role in exposing the evil of segregation through sit-ins and arrests for civil disobedience protesting Jim Crow. At the March on Washington the voices of young Blacks would be heard through John Lewis, the speaker chosen to represent the concerns of young people. Black women were capably represented by the National Council of Negro Women, and its leader Dr. Dorothy Height, who had picked up the mantle from the late pioneer Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. The participation of women was no small consideration as there was a recurring debate inside the movement as to the presence or absence of women in leadership. This issue would also confront young people in SNCC and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

As much as the March on Washington is remembered as a pivotal event in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, it was also a feat of remarkable planning. From the technological vantage point of the 21st century, it is easy to forget the rudimentary organizing tools that were available to march organizers in 1963. The telephone and the telegram were the only electronic mass communication tools during that time and much of the planning for the march involved mass meetings in churches, the distribution of fliers and the efforts of the collection of organizations supporting the event. The genius behind the planning was Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man respected for his intellect, who was the glue that held the collection of organizations together and was the march’s grand orchestrator. Many Blacks from southern states had never ventured to Washington, DC and some had never been outside their home county. The primary means of travel for Blacks were bus and car, with some arriving by train. Though DC was considered somewhat ‘neutral’ ground at the time, there were still few places that would accommodate African-Americans. The sea of humanity that poured into the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963 was unlike any gathering of citizens the nation had witnessed.

As the nation prepares for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington what should not be lost on current generations is that the 1963 event was more than an assemblage or collection of great speeches. It was a call to action that set in motion one of the greatest periods of change in American history. In the five years that followed the march the nation undertook significant legislative action and policy implementation that ended legal segregation, expanded and protected the right to vote, confronted poverty and housing discrimination, and extended equal protection under the law to African-Americans. The March on Washington was the event that forced the nation to make the promise of the Reconstruction Amendments – the 13, 14 and 15 –true for all Americans. As a result, it established the framework for equity for women, young people, language minorities and the LGBT community.

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