250,000+ Americans came to Washington DC, for The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on this August day in 1963. The protest was an extraordinarily important event in the struggle for Civil Rights in the USA, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing, iconic I Have a Dream speech, his eloquent, spirited call for Racial Justice and Equality. It remains one of the largest political/social gatherings in the history of humans.
Here is how is happened: In 1941, a march was planned by The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, proposed by the union’s president, A. Philip Randolph.
During The Great Depression, Black Americans benefited less than other groups from President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal programs, and they faced unrelenting racial discrimination, even excluded from defense jobs in the early 1940s. Despite his wife Eleanor Roosevelt‘s opinions on the matter, FDR had no real interest in doing anything about the problem. Randolph called for a March on Washington by 50,000 people. After trying to persuade Randolph and other Black leaders that a march would be a bad thing for the country, FDR issued an Executive Order in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors and establishing something called the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination, and so the March On Washington was canceled. Nearly two million Black people were employed in defense work by the end of 1944. But, it was only a small victory; the FEPC closed shop after the war.
Black Americans continued to face discrimination after World War II. Any gains they had made during the war started to slip away. The March On Washington committee continued to meet annually to reiterate their demands for economic equality. The 1960s Civil Rights Movement changed the political climate, and in 1963, Black leaders began to plan a new March On Washington to encourage the passage of the Civil Rights Act which had stalled in Congress. Again, Randolph and his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, planned a new March For Jobs And Freedom. They anticipated that they could gather 100,000 participants. President John F. Kennedy had the same sort of enthusiasm for the march as Roosevelt, but this time, Black leaders were not dissuaded.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came together and put aside their differences after decades of rivalry. Black and white citizens were urged to attend, and plans were made to ensure that it would be a peaceful event. The late John Lewis and his Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee represented the disillusionment among many Civil Rights advocates. Lewis was scheduled to speak at the march, but in order to preserve the atmosphere of goodwill, leaders persuaded Lewis to leave out his many criticisms of the Kennedy Administration.
Expecting the worst, the DC police mobilized 6000 cops, including reserve officers and deputized firefighters, plus 5,000 National Guard for the march. The Pentagon prepared 19,000 troops.
For the first time since Prohibition, liquor was banned in Washington D.C. Hospitals stocked extra blood reserves and cancelled elective surgeries. Major League Baseball cancelled two games even though the stadium was four miles from the Lincoln Memorial rally site.
The FBI and the Justice Department refused to provide guards for the buses traveling through the South on their way to the march. The FBI sent infiltrators, and Kennedy put agents in position to cut the power to the sound system if the speeches became too incendiary.
Rustin demanded an expensive sound system, claiming: “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear“. The system was sabotaged the day before the march. Organizers had difficulty finding anyone to repair it. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy demanded that the feds fix the system, and somehow it was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
More than 250,000 Americans showed up to share a day of speeches and songs by Civil Rights leaders, politicians, clergy, and showbiz figures. King’s soaring speech with the phrase I Have a Dream expressed the essence of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the highlight of the day. I remember watching it on our black and white television in real time, and even at nine years old, I felt stirred to action. On the bill that day were inspirational performances by Peter, Paul and Mary, gay icon Josephine Baker, Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Marian Anderson, and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
He wanted to speak, but openly gay James Baldwin was not allowed at the podium because the organizers felt his comments would be just too much. Baldwin later commented on the requests that he prevent the march from even happening:
“In my view, by that time, there was, on the one hand, nothing to prevent, the March had already been co-opted and, on the other, no way of stopping the people from descending on Washington. What struck me most horribly was that virtually no one in power (including some Negroes who were somewhere next door to power) was able, even remotely, to accept the depth, the dimension, of the passion and the faith of the people.“
Here’s what you may not know about this day: the real driving force behind The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was Rustin, whose legacy has long been smothered because he was queer. Rustin was a veteran activist with extensive experience in putting together mass protests. With only two months to plan, Rustin established his headquarters in Harlem, with a smaller office in Washington. He and his 200 volunteers quickly put together the largest peaceful demonstration in USA history. At the 2013 anniversary of the march, President Barack Obama awarded to Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal Of Freedom.
Rustin’s story is a sad story, but fascinating. Rustin:
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”
In just a few weeks, Rustin, a biopic directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay by Julian Breece and Milk (2008) screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, it stars out actor Colman Domingo in the title role, with Chris Rock, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Bill Irwin, Jeffrey Wright, and Audra McDonald in supporting roles. The Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice, gave their approval directly to Domingo, stating:
“Your powerful voice helps amplify Bayard Rustin, Godfather of Intersectionality, planned the march, brought non-violence to the Movement, inspired the Freedom Riders, lost to history because of who he loved, who he was. Angelic Troublemakers unite!”
After Joseph Robinette Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Republican lawmakers in many states started to limit the use of drop boxes and mail-in voting. Those moves came after the mango-hued, twice-impeached, four times-indicted, rapist, grifter 45th president tried unsuccessfully to overturn the election based on unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.