This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Elementary and high school pupils study the march in class. It ranks with the Boston Tea Party as that rare example of mass protest that is praised rather than deplored. Largely because of the compelling oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it has become an iconic event in U.S. history. How can Americans argue with rhetoric celebrating a dream of freedom?
Behind this mainstream appropriation of the march, however, lies a more complicated history, both bracing and sobering. It’s a tale of how radicals on the Left conceived and brought to fruition a mass action premised upon coalition building and multi-issue organizing. The story of the march is an example of how those on the Left – in this case, a democratic socialist Left – have played a key role at critical junctures in U.S. history and how difficult it can be to build coalitions that remain loyal to a progressive vision of change.
At the center of the march, from conception to execution, was Bayard Rustin. Rustin’s half-century career as an activist is at its heart an account of a multi-issue approach to social justice rooted in a socialist ethic. A Quaker who embraced Gandhian non-violence, he worked for decades in a pacifist movement where he argued that peace would never come unless pacifists also espoused a politics of racial justice. He pioneered direct action approaches to fighting racism, while also believing that racial equality would always prove illusory if economic resources remained concentrated among the few.
Rustin had been involved in the Young Communist League in the 1930s. He broke with it, but in the 1960s had close ties with democratic socialists like Michael Harrington and David McReynolds. He always sought to integrate issues of economic justice into both the black freedom struggle and the peace movement. Skilled though he was as an organizer, he also learned to lead without drawing attention to himself. And as a gay man in the generation before gay liberation, he had to navigate carefully around the homophobia of the society and of some of his activist colleagues.
The idea of a march first emerged in a conversation early in 1963 between Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. Another civil rights leader of socialist persuasion, Randolph was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union of African American railroad workers. In the prospectus that Rustin drafted for the march, he wove issues of racial and economic justice together. “The dynamic that has motivated Negroes . . . in their own struggle against racism may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice,” he wrote. His original plan envisioned two days of action that included not simply a march, but massive lobbying of Congress and civil disobedience as well.
It wasn’t easy lining up mainstream civil rights organizations behind a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” In fact, had it not been for the way that protests led by Dr. King in Birmingham provoked a shocking excess of white supremacist violence that spring, the march might not have materialized. Rustin played upon the outrage and the upsurge of local activism that Birmingham provoked and lobbied hard to win support for the march. By June, national civil rights organizations ranging from the Urban League and the NAACP to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were on board. And, true to his commitment to coalition, with Randolph’s help Rustin brought in national labor leaders and white religious leaders as well.
Rustin believed firmly in a strategy of coalition building, but he also knew that coalition was not for the faint of heart. As the coalition broadened, the initial vision of the mobilization narrowed. It officially remained a “March for Jobs and Freedom” but jobs and economic justice now fell lower on the list of demands. The original conception of a multi-event protest that included lobbying and civil disobedience was revised simply to include the march and a private meeting of organizational leaders with some members of Congress and the President. Still, Rustin persevered. He was confident that a peaceful mass protest would be transformative to those who attended. It would make dramatically clear that they were part of something larger than themselves and energize them for further action. And, he believed that a mass march in Washington would propel major civil rights legislation forward – and it did.
The success of the march pushed Rustin into a national spotlight like never before. He was on the cover of Life magazine, and central to Newsweek’s reporting on the march. He now had a higher platform from which to argue for his core beliefs about what to fight for and how to do it. As the forces of protest grew stronger and the Johnson administration surprised activists by vigorously pushing civil rights and voting rights legislation, Rustin argued that, for activists on the Left to succeed, they needed to engage the political system directly rather than simply remain protesters on the outside. Protest, to Rustin, was a tactic flexibly deployed, not a strategy rigidly adhered to. Yet, while those principles might have made sense to many activists of leftist persuasion in the wake of the March on Washington, by the time Lyndon Johnson was bombing North Vietnam and pouring troops into Southeast Asia two years later, they became suspect.
Rustin remained loyal to multi-issue coalition-style politics. He worked later in the sixties to build support for a “Freedom Budget” to extend the initiatives of the War on Poverty. He persuaded organizations like the NAACP, with a history of focusing sharply on racial discrimination, to make issues like the minimum wage part of their agenda. His successes, including the March on Washington, make his career worth remembering in this anniversary year. Rustin is a reminder of how some of the most creative thinking about movements for social and economic justice has come from those rooted in a socialist tradition. And he is also a reminder that we always need to be thinking freshly in the changing circumstances that we constantly confront.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary film “Brother Outsider” is an excellent biography of Rustin.
John D'Emilio is the author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches gender and women's studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.