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The Forgotten Radical History of the March on Washington

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred fifty years ago this August 28, remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left. Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists—most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists—the protest drew nearly a quarter-million people to the nation’s capital. Yet the Left has not claimed the March as its legacy.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred fifty years ago this August 28, remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left. Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists--most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists--the protest drew nearly a quarter-million people to the nation's capital. Composed primarily of factory workers, domestic servants, public employees, and farm workers, it was the largest demonstration--and, some argued, the largest gathering of union members--in the history of the United States.

That massive turnout set the stage not only for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President John F. Kennedy had proposed two months before, but also for the addition to that law of a Fair Employment Practices clause, which prohibited employers, unions, and government officials from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex. And, by linking those egalitarian objectives to a broader agenda of ending poverty and reforming the economy, the protest also forged a political agenda that would inspire liberals and leftists ranging from President Lyndon Johnson to the Black Power movement. After watching organizer Bayard Rustin read the full list of demands, "while every television camera at the disposal of the networks was upon him," left-wing journalist Murray Kempton remarked, "No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans."

Yet, despite that success, the Left has largely relinquished its claim to the legacy of the March on Washington. Even before it occurred, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X leveled the charge--embraced by Black Power and New Left activists in the subsequent decade--that the mobilization had been "taken over by the government" and deprived of its once-radical agenda. Meanwhile, liberals and even conservatives were happy to claim the demonstration as their own--often focusing narrowly on the relatively moderate and conciliatory message of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech while overlooking more confrontational statements by A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, and others.

By the 1980s, a broad consensus had emerged that attributed the success of the protest not to its radicalism but to its narrow focus on, as journalist Juan Williams wrote for the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, "moral imperatives that had garnered support from the nation's moderates--issues such as the right to vote and the right to a decent education." While conservatives Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom congratulated Randolph, King, and others for suppressing demands for "radical, social, political and economic changes," leftist Manning Marable chided civil rights leaders for failing to "even grapple with [the] social and economic contradictions" of American capitalism. Only in the late 1960s, according to Williams, did the movement expand its agenda to include "issues whose moral rightness was not as readily apparent: job and housing discrimination, Johnson's war on poverty, and affirmative action."

In addition to depriving leftists of a rare success story, this distorted historical memory has reinforced the impression that the racially egalitarian politics of the civil rights movement were somehow incompatible with struggles for economic justice. From Barack Obama to Occupy Wall Street, many liberals and leftists have promoted the belief that Americans can transcend the "racial stalemate" of the post-civil rights era by focusing on their "common hopes" for economic security. Obama succeeded in stabilizing the economy and implementing the most ambitious health reform since the 1960s, and Occupy drew unprecedented attention to the growing gap between the extremely wealthy and the other "99 percent" of our society. Despite those tremendous achievements, however, the nation remains as racially polarized as ever. Neither Obama nor Occupy ignored race completely, but their political framing made it difficult to address persistent racial disparities in wages, unemployment, and incarceration or to respond to the often implicitly racist rhetoric that conservatives employed to restrict immigration, voting rights, and assistance to the poor. Meanwhile, white voters, who had benefited from Obama's economic policies as much or more than others, were less likely to support the president in 2012 than they had been four years earlier. While the Occupy movement faded into the background, Obama was reelected by a coalition of African Americans, Latinos, and women of all races--who were motivated by threats to their civil rights as much as their economic security.

Ironically, the March on Washington was nearly derailed by a similar miscalculation. Contrary to popular mythology, the demonstration was initiated not to break down racial barriers to voting rights, education, and public accommodations in the Jim Crow South but to highlight "the economic subordination of the Negro" and advance a "broad and fundamental program for economic justice." The roots of the protest stretched back to the March on Washington Movement, which Randolph initiated to protest employment discrimination during the Second World War, and it was renewed in the 1960s by the Negro American Labor Council, a nearly forgotten organization that Randolph and other black trade unionists formed to protest segregation and discrimination in organized labor. When Randolph and other trade unionists proposed a "March on Washington for Jobs," however, they faced resistance from other black activists who feared that such mobilization would detract attention and resources away from the campaign that Martin Luther King and others were planning to protest segregation and legal discrimination in the South. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a black feminist who had directed Randolph's campaign against employment discrimination in the 1940s, convinced him to meet with King and plan a demonstration that could address "both the economic problems and civil rights." Rather than narrowing their objectives to win support from moderates, Randolph, Hedgeman, King, and others united a broad coalition of radicals behind the slogan "For Jobs and Freedom." The official demands of the protest included passage of Kennedy's civil rights bill, which mandated equal access to public accommodations and voting rights in the South, but marchers also wanted to strengthen the law by requiring all public schools to desegregate by the end of the year, "reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens were disfranchised"; blocking federal funding to discriminatory housing projects, and prohibiting government agencies, unions, and private firms from discriminating against potential employees on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin. Furthermore, march leaders insisted that such racially egalitarian measures would be ineffective unless coupled with a minimum wage increase, extension of federal labor protections to workers in agriculture, domestic service, and the public sector, and a "massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers--Negro and white--on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages." Countering Malcolm X's charge that the march had been co-opted, journalist Harvey Swados observed that this "merging of two streams of thought and action" produced an agenda "surpassing anything conceived of by white liberals and well-intentioned officialdom."

We have lost sight of that radicalism, but it was hard to miss on the day of the march. "We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom," Randolph declared in his opening remarks to the rally that would culminate, nearly two hours later, with King's famous speech. While King would challenge the United States to live up to the promises of equality and freedom contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Randolph insisted "that real freedom will require many changes in the nation's political and social philosophies and institutions." For example, he explained, ending housing discrimination would require civil rights activists to assert that "the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality." Lending a decidedly American flavor to that implicitly socialist ideal, Randolph asserted that the history of slavery placed African Americans at the forefront of the revolution. "It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values," the seventy-four-year-old trade unionist declared, "because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property."

As the official director of the March on Washington, Randolph set the tone for the other speeches delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. Roy Wilkins, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who had initially opposed the mobilization out of fear that it would undermine efforts to pass the civil rights bill, blasted Kennedy's proposal as "so moderate an approach that if it is weakened or eliminated, the remainder will be little more than sugar water." Walter Reuther, of the United Auto Workers union, agreed that the bill needed to be strengthened. "And the job question is crucial," he declared, "because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs."

The most scathing critique of Kennedy's bill came from John Lewis, the twenty-three-year-old representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who pointed out that the bill did nothing to protect the disfranchised sharecropper, the homeless and hungry, or a domestic servant who earned $5 a week caring for a family that brought in $100,000 a year. "Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution," Lewis declared, calling on marchers to find alternatives to a system "dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation."

Moderates objected to the militancy of Lewis' speech, but they failed to restrain him. Randolph and Bayard Rustin convinced the SNCC leader to add a tepid endorsement of Kennedy's bill and to drop a line pledging to "pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground--non-violently." They pointed out that such statements undermined the legislative objectives and Gandhian principles that had been integral to the March on Washington Movement since the 1940s. Randolph dismissed complaints that Lewis used "communist" language such as "revolution" and "masses," however; stating that he had done so "many times myself."

By the time Martin Luther King came to the podium, there was no need for him to reiterate the specifics of the March on Washington's agenda, which may explain why his speech proved so appealing to moderates. Noting that the other leaders "concentrated on the struggle ahead and spoke in tough, even harsh, language," the New York Times reported that "paradoxically it was Dr. King--who had suffered perhaps most of all--who ignited the crowd with words that might have been written by the sad, brooding man enshrined within" the Lincoln Memorial. King began with a prepared text that emphasized the links between racial equality and economic justice, but abandoned it for an optimistic vision of the future that had become a mainstay of his speeches over the previous two years. King had worked references to economic justice into previous versions of his "I Have a Dream" refrain, such as when he told the executive council of the AFL-CIO about his "dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few." Just two months earlier, at a massive march in Detroit, King looked forward to a day when "Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and that they will be able to get a job." He dropped those assertions at the Lincoln Memorial, however, and--caught up in the passion of the moment--focused on the demands of the southern struggles out of which he had emerged. Judging from the applause that followed, he made a wise choice.

King's speech won immediate and widespread praise for its power and eloquence, but only gradually did his emphasis on integration and legal equality come to be seen as the singular expression of the movement's agenda. Ironically, that transformation was initiated by leftists who grew frustrated with their inability to realize the full extent of their goals in the late 1960s. Writing for the liberal journal Commentary in 1965, Bayard Rustin urged his relatively moderate readers to take up the calls for full employment, better wages, and increased funding for social services that he and other radicals had called for two years earlier at the Lincoln Memorial. To underline the need for continued struggle toward economic justice, however, he implied that civil rights activists had focused narrowly in the previous decade on racial questions that were "relatively peripheral to both the American socioeconomic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of the Negro people." Stokely Carmichael, who succeeded John Lewis as chairman of SNCC, leveled a similar critique in his 1967 manifesto, Black Power. "We must face the fact that, in the past, what we have called the movement has not really questioned the middle-class values and institutions of this country," he charged. Without acknowledging that he was paraphrasing Randolph's address to the March on Washington, Carmichael explained, "Reorientation means an emphasis on the dignity of man, not the sanctity of property."

As suggested by Carmichael's statements, the Left's disowning of the March on Washington depended as much on forgetting other speeches as on elevating King's "I Have a Dream." Drew Hansen points out that many liberals embraced King's legacy only after the civil rights leaders' assassination in 1968, when the optimistic and inherently patriotic message of his 1963 speech offered a soothing alternative to the frustrated and confrontational rhetoric of the Black Power movement and the New Left. At the same time, many leftists cited the controversy sparked by John Lewis's speech to suggest that he had been censored. Despite Lewis's recollection that he and other SNCC leaders agreed that "our message was not compromised," the incident was cited widely as evidence, as Nicolaus Mills wrote in Dissent, of "the compromises the March on Washington's black sponsors had made in order to win over the media and the Kennedy administration." Even today, that distorted historical memory continues to blind both liberals and leftists to the lessons of the March on Washington. When Obama first ran for president in 2008, he distinguished his own political philosophy from that of the civil rights movement. While he credited Lewis and other members of the "Moses Generation" with defeating Jim Crow and paving the way for him to become the first black president of the United States, the candidate associated his own political beliefs more strongly with "the economic populism of the New Deal--a vision of fair wages and benefits, patronage and public works, and an ever-rising standard of living." Tapping into a widespread nostalgia for the "Greatest Generation," he suggested that the egalitarian politics of "the sixties" destroyed "a sense of common purpose" that was subsequently captured by the Right. A similar narrative is employed by those who praise Occupy Wall Street for salvaging the economic populism of the early-twentieth-century Left from the egalitarian politics of the civil rights and feminist movements. "'We are the 99%' conveys a deeply moral, democratic message that represents a leap beyond what most left activists have been saying since the 1960s," Michael Kazin wrote in Dissent, discounting both the lasting appeal of race and gender equality and the degree to which they have been linked to struggles for economic justice.

Meanwhile, the Right remains eager to claim the legacy of the March on Washington. Leftists were outraged in 2010 when conservative pundit Glenn Beck planned a Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the forty-seventh anniversary of the March on Washington--but Reverend Al Sharpton and other black leaders were clearly caught off guard as they scrambled to "Reclaim the Dream" by holding an alternative commemoration at a nearby high school. Tens of thousands showed up for the One Nation rally at the Lincoln Memorial, which the NAACP, AFL-CIO, and other groups organized to demand "jobs, justice and education." Organizers claimed to have been planning the protest since April, but they held it four weeks after the anniversary of the historic March on Washington and never shook the perception that they were simply embarrassed by Beck's success.

Let's hope that the Left does not make the same mistake again. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the National Park Service have announced plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of King's speech and the March on Washington (in that order), but they are not likely to challenge the standard narrative of the event and its meaning. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference is planning to mark the anniversary with a motorcade from Alabama to Washington, with the intention of "talking about jobs as well as freedom," but the group lacks the size and visibility to challenge the tenor of the official commemoration. Larger groups--particularly the NAACP and AFL-CIO--have an opportunity to shift the tone of the anniversary more decisively. Now, more than ever, the Left needs to reclaim the radical legacy of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

William P. Jones is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His next book, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in July of this year.