Some Socialists and the 1963 March on Washington

When the key organizers of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” gathered on the morning after the epic events of August 28, 1963 – which began with the delivery of a “living petition” for racial justice by a quarter of a million Americans and finished with the president of the United States hailing the march as a stride toward “translating civil rights from principles into practice” – they did so at the Socialist Party’s National Conference on Civil Rights.

john-nichols3.jpg   John Nichols

“We will need to continue demonstrations,” declared A. Philip Randolph, the initiator and director of the march. Randolph, the labor leader who had first called for a march on Washington in 1941, when he was advocating for the integration of defense industries, argued that: “Legislation is enacted under pressure. You can’t move senators and congressmen just because a measure is right. There must be pressure.”

Randolph’s remarks were covered on the front page of the New York Times, which made cursory reference to the fact that he and other leaders of the march had gathered at an event organized by the Socialist Party. It was not news that Randolph was appearing with the socialists. The man who in his days as a young radical editor had been described as “the most dangerous Negro in America” was a longtime member of the party and an ardent democratic socialist. The march’s deputy director, Bayard Rustin, identified as a pacifist and a social democrat. Among the prominent figures who participated in the march was Norman Thomas, the six-time Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States. The speaker who hailed the march as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., would later recall that, ‘‘a little Negro boy listened at the Washington Monument to an eloquent orator. Turning to his father, he asked, ‘Who is that man?’ Came the inevitable answer: ‘That’s Norman Thomas. He was for us before any other white folks were.’’’

As political and media elites mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this summer, it will be intriguing to see whether they make even scant reference to the role played by Randolph, Rustin, Thomas and their allies in calling for, organizing and framing the message of the march.

It is neither necessary, nor accurate, to suggest that the March on Washington was a socialist endeavor – or anywhere near as radical in its influences and intents as critics such as South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond claimed at the time. The march was bigger than any individual ideology or partisanship. The speaker list included religious figures, such as King, who were influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel” but who did not identify as socialists. Republican lawmakers, such as New York Senator Jacob Javits, hailed the march and announced that it would help them to organize members of “the party of Lincoln” in support of pending civil rights legislation.

But a reasonable regard for history argues for recalling that a number of socialists, especially Randolph, the longtime leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, played a pivotal role in making the march a reality – and in advancing its essential message: that of a campaign for “jobs and freedom” that recognized the vital significance of linking economic and social justice.

This is not a historical aberration rooted in the ferment of the 1960s; in fact, quite the opposite. Throughout American history, from the days when Tom Paine imagined a social-welfare state in his last great pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice,” to the days when Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune featured the world’s most prominent radical writers along with reports on the rise of a militant new party, the “Republicans,” to the days when Franklin Roosevelt consulted with Thomas before assuming the presidency, to the days when White House aides circulated copies of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, to the days when Teddy Kennedy hailed Harrington as “a thundering Old Testament prophet demanding that our country honor its promise to the poor and the weak,” socialists have informed and influenced the American experience. This has not made America a social democracy, any more than the equally long and significant influence of libertarians has made America a free-market state. But this country used to have a good deal more respect for the value of ideas and idealists, and an understanding that the solutions to great challenges might well be found not in a compromised center but on the inspired right or left.

Randolph and other key figures from the March on Washington visited the White House to outline a “Freedom Budget” that had as its goals the abolition of poverty; guaranteed full employment; fair prices for farmers; fair wages for workers; housing and health-care for all; and the establishment of tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families. Lyndon Johnson gave Randolph a Medal of Freedom but not a full embrace of the Freedom Budget. While the War on Poverty was surely influenced by Michael Harrington’s writing and by Randolph’s advocacy, it never saw the commitments that the young writer or the aging labor leader sought.

Nothing saddened Randolph more, as he believed that the Freedom Budget was essential to making real the full “jobs and freedom” promise of the March on Washington, as expressed by Dr. King in his stirring plea “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Interviewed in the mid-1970s, Randolph explained that: “My philosophy was the result of our concept of effective liberation of the Negro through the liberation of the working people. We never separated the liberation of the white working man from the liberation of the black working man.” 

“The unity of these forces,” argued Randolph, “would bring about the power to really achieve social change.”

The March on Washington was an epic event in American history. It occurred on a single day, but it was part of an arc of history that began long before August 28, 1963, and that extends to the present. A. Philip Randolph, who lived until 1979, was able to reflect on a good measure of that history. But the old socialist was not inclined toward self-congratulation. Rather, in his last interviews and speeches, he recalled the Freedom Budget and he spoke of the work yet to be done. Among all the reasons for recalling Randolph’s remarkable contributions, it is perhaps most important to remember that Randolph was not satisfied. The March on Washington bent the arc of history toward progress, but Randolph never stopped applying pressure – to Democratic and Republican presidents, to members of Congress of every ideology, to the labor movement. He was an independent radical who always believed, as he said on that morning after, “We will need to continue demonstrations.”

John Nichols is Washington, DC correspondent for The Nation, associate editor of The Capital Times and author of many books, including The S-Word (2011) and Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (2012). He will speak at DSA’s 2013 convention.