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Reclaiming a Forgotten History

John Tarleton Aug 17, 2013

The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights
William P. Jones
W.W. Norton & Company (2013)


The grainy, black-and-white newsreel images return each January. In them, the stocky black preacher with a sonorous voice stands confidently in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and issues a thundering call for America to cast aside its racist past for a brighter future of interracial harmony in which all people are judged by “the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” Waves of applause sweep across the sun-splashed crowd of a quarter-million people as The Speech reaches its messianic climax. End of clip.

Snippets of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are etched in the minds of millions of Americans and the August 28, 1963, March on Washington is considered one of the most important protests in U.S. history. Yet, the origins of that day and the fullness of the demands of that massive crowd are little known. With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington coming at the end of August, William P. Jones, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, has sought to fill that void.

John Tarleton: Your book eschews the typical narrative of the 1963 March on Washington as one sunny day where all these people showed up and heard a great speech. Why?

William Jones: That typical narrative is accurate. It’s just really incomplete. What I’ve tried to do is expand our understanding of the goals and the history behind the march. So the book really starts 20 years earlier with a previous march on Washington that was cancelled during World War II and traces the origins of the movement that many people saw for the first time, August 28, 1963, but had really long and deep roots in communities across the country.

JT: The role of labor unions in the March on Washington is one in particular that is obscured. You explore that angle extensively.

WJ: Part of the reason it’s obscured is the AFL-CIO, the primary labor federation itself, did not endorse the march. And that’s often been the way in which the story has been told. But what I found in my research was that labor leaders and union activists were really the initiators and the leaders of the march. Most of them were African-Americans. So they had fallen out of that story.

The march itself was initiated by the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), which was a network of black union activists that numbered between 1,500 and several thousand black union activists in cities across the country. These were mostly elected local officials or staffers in local unions or union councils. And they were also often leaders of local civil rights organizations. They were extremely important people in their communities but they’re almost completely unknown at this point.

NALC was headed by A. Philip Randolph who had first called for a march on Washington in the 1940s. The leaders of NALC initially called the ’63 March on Washington to protest employment discrimination and call for more jobs. But they were convinced by other civil rights activists to expand their agenda, primarily to embrace the goals of the Southern civil rights movement, which were integration, access to public accommodations and public services and voting rights. And that’s where the slogan of the 1963 march for “Jobs and Freedom” comes from.

JT: Talk about A. Philip Randolph. He exemplifies in many ways the forgotten history of the march.

WJ: If you look at the media coverage of the ’63 march, Randolph was clearly recognized as the leader of the march. By then, he was 74 years old and had had a long life of political activism. He had moved to Harlem in 1911 from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, and quickly became involved in the socialist and trade union movements.

Randolph was known for two important things. One was his leadership of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was the largest union led by African-Americans and one that he built from the ground up.

Randolph gained wider recognition among whites in 1941 when he threatened to organize 100,000 African-American workers to march on Washington as the United States prepared to support the Allies during World War II. He called off the march at the last minute when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order banning employment discrimination by defense contractors during the war. Roosevelt’s order was fairly weak, and this set up a 20-year struggle that culminated in the addition of Title VII to the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the basis of race, color, nationality, religion or sex.

JT: Your book is a tribute to the persistence of the march’s organizers.

WJ: One of the things I would like for people to take away from this story is the really long process of organizing and the importance of institutions like unions, civil rights organizations and black women’s clubs that were central to the ability to organize. To think people said, “Let’s just march on Washington” and a quarter-million people showed up does an injustice to the legacy of people who over the course of several decades built institutions that had networks in place to mobilize when the call for the march occurred.

JT: What were the achievements of the ’63 march?

WJ: The common story is that it shifted public opinion on racial equality, which is true but often exaggerated. There remained very strong opposition to integration not just in the South but in the North. You did see an important shift in opinion in the mainstream media and among moderate politicians, who came to recognize the power of the march and of the speeches. The most direct outcome of the march was the addition of Title VII to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

JT: Many gains have been made in the past 50 years. However, recent events from the Trayvon Martin verdict to conservative attacks on voting rights of people of color suggest that a lot of people in this country are still not reconciled to the idea of full equality under the law for everyone.

WJ: Today almost everybody will claim to believe in racial equality. But the real issue is how do we make sure that people are not discriminated against? Increasingly we’re seeing people move toward the position that the government shouldn’t have the power to enforce such laws and shouldn’t be involved in these matters. When you look at what it took to create a situation in which people had equal access to housing or jobs, then that retreat from enforcement power is what we really need to be concerned about.

JT: Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to converge on Washington, DC, on Aug. 24 to mark the 50th anniversary of the ’63 march. Is it still possible for such a demonstration to have an impact on either public policy or the broader culture?

WJ: One of the reasons the 1963 March on Washington had such power was that it was the first time people had tried this on such a large scale. Over time, it has become normal for groups with a grievance to march on Washington. One thing I’ve noticed with this mobilization is that it has depended on similar institutions that created the first march — unions and civil rights organizations. So while I don’t think this event has the potential to have the scale of impact that first March on Washington did, it looks like it might be a meaningful event.