Sunday, August 28, 2011

As Good as His Speech Was, The March on Washington Was Bigger Than Martin Luther King

Hurricane Irene rained on the parade.  Rained it out, if fact.  The dedication of the new Martin Luther King Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. today on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had to be postponed.  As many as 250,000 people were expected to attend the event, which happens to be about the same number who participated in the original event.

Like a lot of people, I was glued to the television for the beginning-to-end coverage provided by CBS News.  I was a 14 year old in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the time.  I was both thrilled and awestruck.  Listening to Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech literally changed my life.

Media coverage of the widely anticipated dedication naturally harkened to that day and March.  But to hear them tell it, it was a virtual one man show.  The truth is broader and perhaps even more inspiring.

The march originally was the brainchild of an elder of both the Labor and Civil Rights movements.  A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the Negro American Labor Council as well as a Vice President of the AFL-CIO modeled his call for a march on Washington on a similar event he had planned back in 1941 to force President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open up employment in the burgeoning defense industry to Blacks.  Just the threat of thousands of Negros descending on the Capital had been enough to cause the President to establish the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and bar discriminatory hiring in the defense industry.  Randolph wanted to bring similar pressure on President John F. Kennedy and Congress to move on stalled civil rights legislation, but also to bring up new issues of jobs and economic opportunity that had been overshadowed by the tumultuous battle for civil rights in the South. 

Randolph brought together the leaders of all of the largest national civil rights organizations including James Farmer, President of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Roy Wilkins, President  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, President of the National Urban League; and Dr. King, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form a coalition to sponsor the march.  It was no small feat because of turf wars, ideological differences, and egos.

In addition Randolph sought support from the Labor movement, most significantly from Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW).  The White dominated craft unions of the AFL, however, were notable for their absence.  

Bayard Rustin of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, an early forerunner of the Freedom Rides that was meant to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel, was tapped to coordinate volunteers and logistics, recruit marchers from across the country and attend to all of the other details of the march while Randolph pulled together political, labor and religious support for the march. 

Other than being a star speaker that day and helping to turn out SCLC members, King was not heavily involved in the planning or management of the event.  

As word spread, it became apparent that the march was going to turn into the largest event of its kind in history.  The media began to pay attention.  On the day of the march, buses poured into the city from sleepy Mississippi towns and from gritty industrial hubs like Detroit and Chicago.  Trains from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were jammed.  Thousands of local Washington residents swelled the throng.  Organizers put the crowd at more than 300,000.  The National Park Service, in charge because the speakers’ platform was erected at the Lincoln Memorial, said 200,000.  Whatever was the case, crowds filled the Mall far passed the Washington Monument.  About 80% of the marchers were Black, the rest mainly white.  Marchers included many celebrities including actors like Sidney Poitier, Harry Bellefonte, and Charlton Heston—yes that Charlton Heston.  

It was a Wednesday afternoon but the three major broadcast networks broke away from their usual programming of afternoon soap operas to cover the swelling crowd and speeches live.  

Marian Anderson, who had sung on the same steps at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt after she was denied use of the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in 1939, opened the program with the National Anthem.  Several other performers took to the stage over the course of the program, perhaps most notably Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Mahalia Jackson. 

The Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle led the invocation.  Other religious leaders on the program included Dr. Eugene Blake on behalf of the Protestant National Council of Churches and two leading Rabbis. 

After Randolph’s opening remarks each of the major civil rights leaders took the stage in turn. Floyd McKissick had to read the remarks of CORE’s James Farmer, who was in a Louisiana jail. The youngest leader, John Lewis of the militant SNCC, excoriated the Kennedy Administration for not acting to protect Civil Rights workers who were under regular and violent attack across the South.  Randolph and others who were trying to flatter and coax the President into action forced Lewis to strike the most inflammatory portions of his speech, but what was left was still plenty critical.  

Slain NAACP organizer Medgar Evers’s wife Myrlie was on the announced program to lead a Tribute to Negro Women, but did not appear.  In the end the only woman to speak was jazz singer Josephine Baker who wore her World War II Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the L├ęgion d'honneur. 
It all led up the last major address—the highly anticipated speech of Dr. King.  If civil rights veterans knew what to expect from the notoriously eloquent leader, millions of Americans viewing at home were in for an eye opening experience.  The speech, built to the thundering crescendo:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The nation, or most of it was awestruck and impressed.  That speech, along with the continued televised violence against Blacks struggling for equal access to public accommodation and the vote, helped set the stage for the major civil rights legislation enacted in the next three years.  

The run-up to this year’s original dedication date coincided with a two week campaign of civil disobedience at the White House where hundreds of volunteers have so far chained themselves to the cast iron fence surrounding the grounds.  The planned two weeks of demonstrations is the largest and most sustained action of civil disobedience ever at the Executive Mansion.  The protestors are demanding that President Obama refuse to authorize construction of a new pipeline that is supposed to carry heavy slurry of petroleum extracted from Tar Sands deposits in the arboreal forests of Alberta, Canada.  The American portion of the pipe line would enter the U.S.  in North Dakota run all the way to Port Arthur, Texas.

To say that the issue was obscure to most Americans before the civil disobedience began is no exaggeration.
Many of the participants have cited Dr. King and his campaign of  non-violent confrontation of Southern segregation  as inspiration for their action.  Cornel West, perhaps the nation’s most high profile Black  public intellectual,  used the New York Times Op-Ed  page  to say that Dr. King didn’t need a stone monument, but can best be honored by a new mass movement against the oligarchy that oppressing and impoverishing so many.  He even dared to use the word “revolutionary.”

Dr. King has been “white washed” into an apostle of non-violence and little else.  That’s because his commitment to economic equality and justice is too dangerous to remember  and the mass movement he was part of too threatening to be allowed to replicate. 

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