The march on Washington — past & present


The militant outpouring on the streets in reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, racist murderer of Trayvon Martin, combined with a series of other recent attacks on people of color in the U.S. (such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act) has most observers predicting a big turnout in DC on Aug. 24. The event will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a dream.”

Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the main groups endorsing this year’s march, told the London Guardian that given these events, the significance of the march had “multiplied rapidly.” But Jealous added: “The reality is that large civil rights marches have in the past been heavily funded by unions. The trade-union movement has come under withering attack in recent years and its resources are fewer as a result.”

Jealous is certainly right about the vicious, and all too often effective, attacks on unions—attacks that make labor’s participation on Aug. 24 all the more necessary. Thanks in part to the ferment that the civil rights movement had inspired, the unions recruited heavily in the public and service sectors during the 1960s and ’70s, especially among Black and Latin@ workers. Most of those unions remain massive today, though they are under heavy assault, while unions in private industry have greatly shrunk or disappeared.

The crucial question, however, is not how much dues money or staff unions have to allocate to the march, but the political relationship of labor to today’s antiracist movement. From that perspective, it’s worth looking back at previous Marches on Washington.

The first, which remained only a call and never actually occurred, was that conceived by A. Philip Randolph, founder and head of the Brotherhood of Pullman Sleeping Car Porters, and was to have occurred in 1941. Randolph was a leader of the Socialist Party, i.e., he was a reformist “socialist.”

Explaining the roots of Randolph’s March On Washington Movement, Evelyn Sell, in her review of Herbert Garfinkel’s “When Negroes March” in the International Socialist Review (Winter 1960), wrote:Mr. Garfinkel traces the March on Washington movement from the time that the depression signs of ‘No Help Wanted’ changed to the pre-World War II signs, ‘Help Wanted—White.’ Negro leaders appealed to President Roosevelt … on behalf of the Negro community, which was frozen out of the ‘benefits’ of the war preparedness program. … It was at this point that Randolph issued the first call for ‘An “all-out” thundering march on Washington.’”

“Local March committees were set up in 18 cities, outdoor rallies were held, poster walks took place, funds solicited, MOW buttons were sold by the thousands. Counter-pressures and appeals for national unity on the part of the government only served to encourage the March supporters in their project.”

Just one week before the March was to take place, however, Roosevelt ordered a Fair Employment Practices Committee to be set up, and Randolph called off the March. A struggle began over how to enforce the FEPC’s provisions, and the committee died after the war, throttled in a bipartisan effort.

Of course, Randolph’s insistence on his right to tell the masses when they could come into the streets was a major factor in this outcome. On that note, Sell remarks: “In his preface the author [Garfinkel] points out, ‘Behind the current agitation in the Negro community is a history of developing leadership and organization … The defense period just prior to American entry into World War II is fundamental, because it was then that Negro political activity was forced into independent action.’

“By ‘independent action,’” wrote Sell,  “Mr. Garfinkel means action independent of white liberals. True independent action—a break with capitalist aims and political parties—never occurs as an important factor to the author.”

The legacy left by the Movement was, on the one hand, a crystal-clear indication of the eagerness of millions of Blacks, especially workers, to mobilize for their liberation and, on the other, of the insistence of reformist Black and labor leaders in dominating the movement in order to keep it within bounds acceptable to the Democratic Party.

The 1963 Washington march

In 1963 Randolph decided to try again. As many as 300,000 people attended the event, which had the backing of several major civil rights organizations. The highlight of the rally at the Lincoln Memorial was the “Dream” speech by the charismatic SCLC leader, Martin Luther King, already nationally known as a leader of desegregation battles in the South.

The youngest speaker at the event was John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In his memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis—describes disputes among planners of the March. He tells of the “sense of militancy” of SNCC having been deflated as “it was becoming a march in, not on, Washington. The whole thing seemed to have been co-opted by the government…

“What we had hoped would be a protest against government neglect was being turned into a propaganda tool to show the government as just and supportive. The Kennedy administration seemed to be trying to silence us in a way, to cool us off, to take the stream out of the movement, to get rid of the drama.”

Lewis’s speech, representing the radical sentiments of SNCC, was censored by March organizers. His original draft said, “we cannot support” Kennedy’s weak civil rights legislation; he was forced to change that to “it is true that we support” the bill if various clauses are added; SNCC, unlike the mainstream leaders, knew the folly of trusting in administration promises to make such changes.

Lewis was forced to delete his question: “I want to know, which side is the federal government on?” He was told to axe the part about not waiting for the president or the Justice Department or Congress, “but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power.” He had to drop the line: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Surprisingly, he was allowed to keep the line that flowed logically from all the stricken clauses: “Where is our party?” Perhaps March organizers felt that stripped of so many other radical statements, listeners wouldn’t notice the implication of that query. But it remains the central question today for every social movement.

Reviewing post-March events, Lewis writes that the civil rights bill that, for the top organizers was one of the main goals of the March, “sank out of sight as weeks went on,” and “as for the jobs this day was supposed to hasten, they didn’t happen either. Randolph’s vision of economic change remained just that—a vision. A mass march for ‘Jobs and Freedom’ had, when the singing stopped and the cheering was over, done little to actually achieve either.”

Even harsher criticism came from Malcolm X, who called it the “Farce on Washington,” saying: “They told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and then they told them to get out of town by sundown.”

A look at the issues of The Militant in the weeks preceding and following the March provides crucial political context for Lewis’s account. (The Militant is the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, out of which Socialist Action emerged after the SWP had abandoned its revolutionary program.)

The July 10, 1963, issue predicted that a mass turnout would give the masses more confidence in themselves, weaken the hold of gradualist leaders and phony allies, and promote more radical leadership. The most important thing, therefore, was the turnout, not what “leaders” might say on the day of the March.

The Militant’s coverage featured the mutually reinforcing impact of local and national efforts during this period. For instance, the Aug. 5 Militant noted that March organizers called for a massive public works program to provide jobs for all. The same issue reported on an ongoing fight for construction jobs at Downstate Hospital led by the Brooklyn chapter of CORE. Hundreds were arrested during the weeks-long battle.

Freedom Now!

The Aug. 19 Militant announced that as a result of the proliferation of such fights in Northern cities, and the continued hypocrisy, inaction or even open attacks of Democratic Party politicians on the civil rights front (such as the indictment of Albany, Ga., civil rights activists by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, reported in the same issue), Black activists had raised the call for an independent Black political party, to be called the “Freedom Now Party.” The paper noted that the party, although all Black, would be of assistance to white workers fighting the bipartisan attack on labor.

William Worthy, the prominent journalist credited with first proposing the Party, came right out and declared that if votes gathered by the party meant a defeat of Kennedy in 1964, that that would be a good thing, as it would focus attention on Black demands.

This same issue printed excerpts from the SWP convention resolution on the new stage of the movement, referred to no longer as “civil rights” but rather “Freedom Now.” Explaining the roots of this terminological change, the paper said: “The most notable characteristic of this new stage in the Negro struggle is the clear and sharp rejection of gradualism, which is the program, method and perspective of capitalist liberalism.” Freedom Now brings its advocates “into growing conflict with the White House and the Southern Democrats, with the labor leaders as well as the liberals, with Negro as well as white exponents of moderation, compromise and tokenism.”

The Kennedy administration claimed that the March showed “faith and confidence in our democratic form of government.” In contrast, the paper quoted from the “Washington Declaration” of the Freedom Now Party distributed at the March: “Unchained to vested interests [i.e., no longer hamstrung by Democratic Party ties], the Freedom Now Party can promote basic economic changes that will give everyone adequate employment, housing, and education. It can carry forward the struggle for jobs and justice, not only at election times but all the year round.”

“Today the Negro is at the bottom of the power structure. As he rises, he cannot help but lift the status of every other fellow-American.” Evidence of the truth of this could be seen in the Sept. 16 Militant, which reported that a dissident United Mine Workers leader from Hazard, Ky., had announced plans to bus unemployed miners and their wives to DC. The official said they would wait until the effect of the Aug. 28 March “had settled down. Then we’ll hit them with another one.”
The paper, while noting that the AFL-CIO Executive Council had refused to endorse the event, reported that unions participating included steel and auto workers, maritime, garment, electrical workers, mineworkers, and meat cutters. Playing leading roles in organizing the march were New York’s progressive unions, District 65 and Local 1199.
The paper presented vignettes indicating the boldness and determined spirit of the rank-and-file at the March. On-duty MPs “forgot themselves” and clapped for the speakers. A nine-year-old DC boy told a reporter that he had seen parades before but never marched in one. “Asked if this one was like those he had seen he replied: ‘This one’s not going to be funny.’”

The MIlitant noted that while the March showed the potential political power of Blacks, that potential would never be realized as long as Black people were trapped in the two-party system.

And today?

We can expect that this year’s March, coming in the midst of spreading local struggles—as did the 1963 edition—will reinforce and extend those struggles even if, as was the case in 1963, that is due solely to the inspiration of millions marching together and not from any political guidance from the podium.

One example of promising post-March potential is the call by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) for a sustained campaign of activities, starting with “a massive mobilization to shut down either Tallahassee or Sanford, Fla., in August or September, as part of a broader campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

MXGM’s call includes a variety of demands against racist violence and repression, including the immediate release of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a shot into the ceiling in an attempt to halt her abusive husband, against whom she had obtained a restraining order.

The call also demands “a redirection of military funding to social programs, such as public education, housing, health care, public transportation, and grassroots-controlled programs to prevent domestic and intra-communal violence.”

The group writes: “We have to be clear that we cannot and should not count on our enemies—like the courts, and other forces of the U.S. government or transnational corporations—to protect us. … We must defend ourselves, and we have every right to do so by any means necessary” (emphasis in original).

But as in 1941 and 1963, the “official” leaders of this year’s march have no intention of backing such politically independent projects. Organizers are reported to have invited President Obama to participate in at least one of the series of events before or after the March.

We must raise once again the question posed by John Lewis in 1963: “Where is our party?” And whether the answer comes in the form of a Labor Party, an independent Black Party, or both formations in alliance, is less important than the earthshaking results that either one would have in the consciousness of all the exploited and oppressed.

There are hundreds of ongoing struggles today whose foot soldiers are determined to win their rights regardless of what ruling-class politicians say. Of particular political significance is the blending of workplace and community issues, of class, nationality and gender needs, seen in struggles by the Chicago Teachers Union, and by nurses’ unions throughout the country. (Ironically, the New York State Nurses Association is fighting right now to keep open Long Island College Hospital, managed by the very same Downstate hospital that was the target of the 1963 jobs protests!)

As these struggles spread and build on each other, they will draw renewed strength from the growing awareness that they are part of a global fightback against austerity. And that will in turn keep alive the politically independent “by any means necessary” spirit that liberal “leaders” always try to squelch.

Photo: Participants in the rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.

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