Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

28Aug/130

Remembering the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington

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As we remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, I encourage all of us to expand our understanding of the March beyond Dr. King's moving speech.

While there are numerous resources available that chronicle some aspect of the 1963 march, I recommend the following online resource, which includes a 13-page document chronicling the March from its inception through its aftermath, and explores in detail the original vision, the controversies and the compromises that produced the actual event we now know as the 1963 March on Washington - the March for Jobs and Freedom.

I especially appreciate these resources because they tell the stories, and explore the experiences, from the perspectives of those civil rights activists who were actually involved.

There are many lessons to be learned in here, many of which we - and our children - need to appreciate as we reflect on this event, and one of the critical periods in our history in this country.  The sensibilities and differences of perspective shared by the many individuals and organizations at that time are not unlike the same conversations we have today about the form and tone our continuing struggle for justice should take, and no less so given that we have an African American president.

If only we could envision the bold and bright future our ancestors, and those generations yet unborn deserve!  It's up to us to envision it, and to bring it into being.  And paraphrasing the words of our great Ancestor and historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke... We have to start things today that will take future generations to complete.  This is the larger arc of our journey as a people, from our early African beginnings pre-Europe through the present day.  We need to start thinking in those terms.  Our bright future begins today!

Here are a few excerpts from the 13-page overview of the March on Washington.

For more than two decades, A. Philip Randolph had dreamed of a massive march on Washington for jobs and justice. As President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, President of the Negro American Labor Council, and Vice President of the AFL-CIO, he is the towering senior statesman of the Black struggle for equality and opportunity. Back in 1941, with the support of Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste, Randolph had threatened to mobilize 100,000 Blacks to march on Washington to protest segregation in the armed forces and employment discrimination in the burgeoning war industries. To forestall Randolph's march, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (later known as the Fair Employment Act) which outlawed racial discrimination in the national defense industry. This was the first Federal action ever taken against racially-biased employment practices.

In the closing days of 1962, as the Freedom Movement intensifies across the nation, Randolph asks Rustin to draw up plans for a large jobs-oriented protest in Washington.

After Birmingham, direct-action protests flare across the country in the Spring of '63, but the Kennedy administration still hesitates over committing its energies to passage of new civil rights legislation. In May, Dr. King begins to consider the need for national-scale action in Washington to push for an effective civil rights bill. "We are on a breakthrough," King tells his staff, "We need a mass protest... to unite in one luminous action all of the forces along the far flung front."

On June 11, 1963 — the same day as President Kennedy's address to the nation on civil rights — SCLC leaders announce plans to demonstrate in Washington for new civil rights legislation. They call for: “Massive, militant, monumental sit-ins on Congress...” and Massive acts of civil disobedience all over this nation. We will tie up public transportation by laying our bodies prostrate on runways of airports, across railroad tracks, and in bus depots.” Later that night Medgar Evers is assassinated.

King, Randolph, and Rustin join forces. Their calls for large-scale direct-action in Washington disturb the Kennedys and annoy members of Congress. On June 22nd, President Kennedy meets with civil rights leaders at the White House to get them to call off the march (which still has no date, no formal plan, no office, no staff, and no funds). Attending are: A. Phillip Randolph, Jim Farmer (CORE), Dr. King (SCLC), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkens (NAACP), and Whitney Young (Urban League). The press dub them the “Big Six” of civil rights. Though Wilkens and Young are undecided about the march, the direct- action wing of the Movement — Randolph, Farmer, King, and Lewis — refuse to cancel it.

After the meeting, JFK tells his aides: “Well, if we can't stop it, we'll run the damn thing.”

And this of course is when the Coalition Politics began to shape - or reshape as it were - this historic event.  There was so much more to the makings of what we have come to know as this historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  We should all read on to more fully appreciate what took place on that day 50 years ago today.  It should also help us in putting this past Saturday's anniversary march and event into perspective (organized by Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King, III), as well as the remaining events going on today, including President Obama's scheduled address to the nation from the Lincoln Memorial steps.

 

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