Claiming and Teaching
March on Washington
August 20, 2013
The idea for the march in 1963 did not appear out of nowhere, and the fact that A. Philip Randolph originated it was no accident. The notion of the March on Washington in 1963 was, in certain respects, the revival of an idea from 1941 when Randolph convened a group to plan a march on Washington, D.C. to protest the segregation of the growing war industry. That march, which was planned as a black march on Washington, never happened because the mere threat of 100,000 African Americans marching forced President Franklin Roosevelt to give in to the demand for an executive order bringing about formal desegregation of the war industry.
Although conceptualized by Randolph, the march was actually the result of the increasing tempo of a social movement. It could not have been organized in a little more than six months—as it was—if it had not been connected to local organizing that had gone on for decades in NAACP youth councils, churches, unions, women’s groups, and more. It was not individuals who chartered buses from all over the country—it was organizations.
This year President Obama will posthumously award Bayard Rustin the Medal of Freedom, however teaching about Rustin complicates the simplistic Civil Rights narrative offered to students by corporate history textbooks. Rustin was a gay pacifist with a long history of organizing, but despite his record of achievements, homophobia led to him being denied the title of national director of the march—technically, he served under Randolph.
Individuals, such as Malcolm X, were critical of it, albeit in a contradictory manner, claiming that it would not amount to anything. And there were those within the march who, like then-SNCC chairman John Lewis, wanted a more militant posture.
There were periodic improvements, but the crisis that Randolph and the NALC saw brewing in the early 1960s took on the features of a catastrophe by the mid to late 1970s, a fact that we have been living with ever since. Divorcing “civil rights” from economic justice is a feature common to mainstream approaches to history, including those found in school curricula.
What comes across is something very different from the morally righteous and tame “I Have a Dream!” clips and textbook soundbites usually offered around the time of Dr. King’s birthday. In fact, the speech is a militant and audacious indictment of Jim Crow segregation and the situation facing African Americans.
- Official program for the March on Washington: National Archives.
- Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson: Library of Congress, photo by Orlando Fernandez for New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper.
- All other photos from The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs/the Labor History Archives at Wayne State University, www.reuther.wayne.edu.