August 28, 1963– The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
250,000+ Americans came to Washington DC, for The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on an August day in 1963. The protest became the key moment in the struggle for Civil Rights in the USA, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing, iconic I Have a Dream speech, an eloquent, spirited call for Racial Justice and Equality. It is one of the largest political/social gatherings of humans in history.
A little history: In 1941, a march was planned in 1941 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’s clear feelings on the matter, FDR had no real interest doing anything about the problem. Randolph called for a March on Washington by 50,000 people. After attempting to persuade Randolph and other black leaders that a march would be bad for the country, FDR issued an Executive Order in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination. The March On Washington was canceled. Nearly two million Black people were employed in defense work by the end of 1944. But, it was a limited victory; the FEPC closed shop in 1946.
African-Americans faced continuing discrimination after World War II. Any gains they had made during the war began 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 that had stalled in Congress. Again, it was Randolph and his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, who planned the new March For Jobs And Freedom. They anticipated that they could gather 100,000 participants. President John F. Kennedy had as little enthusiasm for the march as had Roosevelt, but this time the black leaders would not be dissuaded.
It helped that The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their differences after decades of rivalry. Black and white citizens were urged to attend, and plans were made to ensure 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 omit his harshest criticisms of the Kennedy Administration.
The DC police were fully mobilized for the march with 6000 cops, including reserve officers and deputized firefighters, plus 5,000 National Guard. The Pentagon readied 19,000 troops.
For the first time since Prohibition, liquor was banned in Washington DC. 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 buses traveling through the South on their way to the march. They recruited more than 1,000 extra police officers to serve on the force. The FBI sent infiltrators, and Kennedy put agents in position to cut the power to the sound system in case the speeches became 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 Kennedy demanded that the federal government fix the system, and it was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
The march was an unprecedented success. 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.
Also on the bill that day were performances by Peter, Paul and Mary, Josephine Baker, Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, the great Marian Anderson, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
He wanted to speak, but openly gay writer James Baldwin was not allowed because the organizers felt his comments would be too inflammatory. Baldwin later commented on the irony of the “terrifying and profound” 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 true architect of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was Rustin, a gay man 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 core staff of 200 volunteers quickly put together the largest peaceful demonstration in USA history. At the 2013 anniversary march, President Barack Obama awarded 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.”
Protesters will march in U.S. cities today to demand protections for voting rights, using the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 March on Washington to push back against a wave of ballot restrictions in Republican-led states.
The “March On for Voting Rights” will be led by civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton. It is aimed at pressuring Congress to pass legislation enshrining expansive access to the ballot in federal law.
After Joseph Robinette Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Republican lawmakers in many states limited the use of dropboxes and mail-in voting. Those moves came after the mango-hued, twice-impeached grifter 45th president tried unsuccessfully to overturn the election based on unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.
Organizers expect some 50,000 demonstrators in Washington DC on the National Mall. Rallies are also planned in other cities also.
This week the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. The measure is named after the late Representative John Lewis, the great civil rights hero who died last year.
Prospects of passage in the Senate remains poor, with only one Republican expressing support. That is nine short of the number Democrats would need to advance it in the chamber, divided 50-50 along party lines and where Senate rules allow a minority to block legislation.
So far this year, at least 18 states have enacted laws restricting voter access.