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Race and Beyond: Remembering the Many Voices at the March on Washington

SOURCE: AP/Anonymous

In this 1963 photo, a crowd gathers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to demonstrate for the civil rights movement.

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Anyone who knows anything about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom knows that was the setting, in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument, for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That was 50 years ago, when some 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall for what was, to that date, the largest public demonstration in the nation’s capital and one of the first ever to be widely broadcast on television.

King brought the rhetorical thunder with his now-famous oration. It began simply—a slow and cautious reading of the prepared remarks that King crafted the night before in his Willard Hotel suite. He said he had come to Washington to “cash a check” for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He urged the crowd to remain calm as they protested injustices, summoning them to “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

King, a Baptist preacher, couldn’t stick with the script when the spirit of the crowd moved within him. He departed from his planned comments, shifting like a jazz musician improvises well-practiced riffs, into lines from a sermon he’d delivered on previous occasions. The “I Have a Dream” sermon compared the idealized American Dream to King’s spiritual quest. One line in particular, where King foresaw a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” has become one of the most famous and controversially quoted passages in the history of American oratory.

Less well-remembered is the fact that King was one of 10 speakers on that steaming-hot August afternoon. Sadly, what those others speakers said has been largely forgotten or ignored in the celebration of King’s memorable quotes. A little corrective history is therefore timely and appropriate, as the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington next month. While King is the singular voice best remembered, he was, in all honesty, a smaller player in an all-star, civil rights ensemble production.

The march represented a coalition of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations and their leaders: James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE; John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC; Asa Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP; Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League; and King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC.

Each of the Big Six leaders spoke except Farmer, who was in a Louisiana jail at the time, having been arrested for “disturbing the peace” as he organized protests in the town of Plaquemine. Floyd McKissick, a North Carolina-based civil rights activist, lawyer, preacher, and black-power advocate, read Farmer’s speech to the marchers. Other speakers included labor leader Walther Reuther and religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faith traditions. Entertainer Josephine Baker, who recognized Rosa Parks among the “Negro Woman Fighters for Freedom,” was the only female speaker.

At the time and in the immediate reactions of the day’s events, some thought another speech, not King’s, was the most noteworthy. Lewis, who was the youngest of the speakers and is the only one still living, had his speech heavily edited by his more senior civil rights activists, who feared his youthful exuberance might prove too fiery for the moment. Still his comments, as delivered, burned with passion:

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory.” For those who have said, “Be patient and wait!” we must say, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.” We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Between the speeches, several prominent entertainers donated their talents, including Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, and Peter, Paul and Mary. A contingent of Hollywood actors, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier, chose actor Charlton Heston to speak for them. He read a speech by writer James Baldwin.

This was a remarkable coming together of interests that, while united in their demands for equality for black Americans, didn’t always see eye-to-eye about how to achieve their shared goal. Under the organizing talents of Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the brilliant strategist who trained King in the tenets of Gandhian nonviolence, the march took place without the much-anticipated violence.

“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was a volunteer at the march and currently serves as the nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for the District of Columbia, told The Washington Post in an article that coincided with the opening of the King Memorial on the Washington Mall. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”

Americans still don’t know the full story. As Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, or PREE, at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., notes in a recent report titled, “The Unfinished March: An Overview”:

Yes, the march galvanized the nation and the civil rights struggle it heralded was among the most inspiring and effective social movements in American – if not world – history. Today, we can celebrate blacks’ equal access to public accommodations, a law against racial discrimination in employment, and black voting rights because of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, were not fully achieved.  The organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom also demanded decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13.00 an hour in today’s dollars.

Before the celebrations begin, complete with recitations of and debates over the various layers of meaning to King’s colorblind dream, we might do well to review the real and full story behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. An accurate understanding of what those brave marchers demanded a half-century ago can only lead to the conclusion that their work remains incomplete and should inspire every American to continue their journey to move this nation closer to fairness and equality for all.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here