The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred 50 years ago this Aug. 28, remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left. Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists — most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists — the protest drew nearly a quarter of a million people to the nation’s capital. Composed primarily of factory workers, domestic servants, public employees, and farm workers, it was the largest demonstration — and, some argued, the largest gathering of union members — in the history of the United States.
That massive turnout set the stage not only for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President John F. Kennedy had proposed two months before, but also for the addition to that law of a Fair Employment Practices clause, which prohibited employers, unions, and government officials from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex. And, by linking those egalitarian objectives to a broader agenda of ending poverty and reforming the economy, the protest also forged a political agenda that would inspire liberals and leftists ranging from President Lyndon Johnson to the Black Power movement.
Yet, despite that success, the Left has largely relinquished its claim to the legacy of the March on Washington. By the 1980s, a broad consensus had emerged that attributed the success of the protest not to its radicalism but to its narrow focus on, as journalist Juan Williams wrote for the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” “moral imperatives that had garnered support from the nation’s moderates — issues such as the right to vote and the right to a decent education.” While conservatives Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom congratulated Randolph, King, and others for suppressing demands for “radical, social, political and economic changes,” leftist Manning Marable chided civil rights leaders for failing to “even grapple with [the] social and economic contradictions” of American capitalism. Only in the late 1960s, according to Williams, did the movement expand its agenda to include “issues whose moral rightness was not as readily apparent: job and housing discrimination, Johnson’s war on poverty, and affirmative action.”
Contrary to popular mythology, the demonstration was initiated not to break down racial barriers to voting rights, education, and public accommodations in the Jim Crow South but to highlight “the economic subordination of the Negro” and advance a “broad and fundamental program for economic justice.” The roots of the protest stretched back to the March on Washington Movement, which Randolph initiated to protest employment discrimination during the Second World War, and it was renewed in the 1960s by the Negro American Labor Council, a nearly forgotten organization that Randolph and other black trade unionists formed to protest segregation and discrimination in organized labor.
The official demands of the protest included passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which mandated equal access to public accommodations and voting rights in the South, but marchers also wanted to strengthen the law by requiring all public schools to desegregate by the end of the year; “reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens were disfranchised”; blocking federal funding to discriminatory housing projects; and prohibiting government agencies, unions, and private firms from discriminating against potential employees on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin.
March leaders insisted that such racially egalitarian measures would be ineffective unless coupled with a minimum wage increase, extension of federal labor protections to workers in agriculture, domestic service, and the public sector, and a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Countering Malcolm X’s charge that the march had been co-opted, journalist Harvey Swados observed that this “merging of two streams of thought and action” produced an agenda “surpassing anything conceived of by white liberals and well-intentioned officialdom.”
We have lost sight of that radicalism, but it was hard to miss on the day of the march. “We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom,” Randolph declared in his opening remarks to the rally that would culminate, nearly two hours later, with King’s famous speech. While King would challenge the United States to live up to the promises of equality and freedom contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Randolph insisted “that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.” For example, he explained, ending housing discrimination would require civil rights activists to assert that “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality.” Lending a decidedly American flavor to that implicitly socialist ideal, Randolph asserted that the history of slavery placed African Americans at the forefront of the revolution. “It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values,” the seventy-four-year-old trade unionist declared, “because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property.”
Walter Reuther, of the United Auto Workers union, agreed that [Kennedy’s] bill needed to be strengthened. “And the job question is crucial,” he declared, “because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.”
The most scathing critique of Kennedy’s bill came from John Lewis, the twenty-three-year-old representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who pointed out that the bill did nothing to protect the disfranchised sharecropper, the homeless and hungry, or a domestic servant who earned $5 a week caring for a family that brought in $100,000 a year. “Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution,” Lewis declared, calling on marchers to find alternatives to a system “dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.”
Moderates objected to the militancy of Lewis’ speech, but they failed to restrain him. Randolph and Bayard Rustin convinced the SNCC leader to add a tepid endorsement of Kennedy’s bill and to drop a line pledging to “pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — non-violently.” They pointed out that such statements undermined the legislative objectives and Gandhian principles that had been integral to the March on Washington Movement since the 1940s. Randolph dismissed complaints that Lewis used “communist” language such as “revolution” and “masses,” however, stating that he had done so “many times myself.” By the time Martin Luther King came to the podium, there was no need for him to reiterate the specifics of the March on Washington’s agenda, which may explain why his speech proved so appealing to moderates.
When Obama first ran for president in 2008, he distinguished his own political philosophy from that of the civil rights movement. While he credited Lewis and other members of the “Moses Generation” with defeating Jim Crow and paving the way for him to become the first black president of the United States, the candidate associated his own political beliefs more strongly with “the economic populism of the New Deal — a vision of fair wages and benefits, patronage and public works, and an ever-rising standard of living.” Tapping into a widespread nostalgia for the “Greatest Generation,” he suggested that the egalitarian politics of “the sixties” destroyed “a sense of common purpose” that was subsequently captured by the Right. A similar narrative is employed by those who praise Occupy Wall Street for salvaging the economic populism of the early-twentieth-century Left from the egalitarian politics of the civil rights and feminist movements. “‘We are the 99%’ conveys a deeply moral, democratic message that represents a leap beyond what most left activists have been saying since the 1960s,” Michael Kazin wrote in Dissent, discounting both the lasting appeal of race and gender equality and the degree to which they have been linked to struggles for economic justice.
Let’s hope that the Left does not make the same mistake of underestimating the ability of a civil rights rally to include demands for radical economic redistribution. This year the progressive community has an opportunity to shift the tone of the anniversary to emphasize the fight for economic and racial justice. Now, more than ever, the Left needs to reclaim the radical legacy of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Excerpted from a longer article in Dissent, Spring 2013.
William P. Jones is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest book, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co.) was published in July 2013.
Attend the march Aug. 24 with DSA! For details see http://www.dsausa.org/50th_anniversary_march_on_washington