The Socialist Roots of the March on Washington

Political pundits have long lionized the August 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a clarion call to end legal segregation.


This interpretation of King as solely an advocate for a “discrimination-free” America accords with America’s dominant ideology of equality of opportunity – if we compete as equals in a capitalist market economy, then the distribution of winners and losers will be just. Glen Beck appropriated this sanitized view of King when he held a Tea Party rally against affirmative action on the 47th anniversary of the march, claiming that if King were alive he would have been in attendance (!).

For once, Beck’s instincts to find a socialist under every bed failed him; King not only embraced affirmative action, but also argued that only with the achievement of a full range of social rights – to a meaningful job, health care, child care, and housing – could political and civil rights be meaningful for all. The main organizers of the 1963 rally: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founder, A. Philip Randolph; Bayard Rustin of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; and Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers, had all been young activists in the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. Rustin, whose sexuality denied him the visible leadership role in the movement that his organizing acumen and oratorical brilliance merited, had been beaten nearly to death several times on the Freedom Rides. Ella Baker, mentor of the student militants in the Student Non-Violating Coordinating Committee, had trained in the 1930s at the left-wing Brookwood Labor Center and the Highlander School.

schwartz.jpg      Joseph M. Schwartz

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, all these individuals called for a full employment economy, including a public jobs program targeted at impoverished areas.  King, speaking last, put forth a lyrical vision of a world free of hatred and racial discrimination, in part to push President Kennedy to increase his support for pending civil rights legislation. But on the eve of the march, King, addressing the AFL-CIO Executive Council, evinced his broader commitment to economic justice, speaking of his “dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” 

King, during his theological training at Crozier Seminary and Boston University, had been profoundly influenced by the Christian socialist theologians Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Neibuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Michael Harrington became aware of King’s socialist convictions when in July 1960, Harrington helped King organize a mass protest at the Los Angeles Democratic Party convention to press for a strong party platform on civil rights. King hid out in a hotel room for two days with Harrington and a few aides to avoid the press hounding him for an early presidential endorsement; there Harrington had long talks with King in which the minster’s Christian socialist convictions became quite apparent. Harrington would later muse that King’s commitment to building a broad civil rights coalition may have led him to avoid putting his socialist convictions front and center. But in a talk to a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in Frogmore, South Carolina in May 1967, King remarked that “something is wrong with capitalism…and maybe America must move towards a democratic socialism.”

King understood that African-Americans would not gain social equality absent full housing integration, as neighborhood social networks are the key to finding good jobs. He also recognized that equal education for all children could only be achieved in schools integrated by both race and class – an insight lacking on the part of today’s “educational reformers” who blame teachers rather than poverty for unequal educational outcomes. In the summer of 1966, King moved the movement north to fight for fair housing in Chicago and its suburbs.  The vicious white backlash against these efforts led to a toothless 1968 Fair Housing Act. And in 1973, when the Supreme Court banned state court-mandated busing across school district lines, the die was cast in favor of well-funded suburban public schools for the affluent and underfunded inner city schools for the poor.

While the victories of the civil rights movement gave rise to a mass African-American middle class, the ravages of deindustrialization, combined with both parties’ abandonment of our cities, means economic apartheid persists today in African-American unemployment levels twice that of whites; the mass incarceration of inner city youth; and the average African-American family only owning one-tenth the assets of the average white family.

As a radical, King also understood the interrelationship among militarism, class domination, and racial injustice. In his April 4, 1967 Riverside Church speech denouncing the war in Vietnam, King held that “the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.” If he were alive today, he would likely point to our wasteful imperial military budget – and our light taxation of the rich and corporations – as major potential sources of revenue that could overturn the inhumane politics of budget austerity.

King believed that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He lost his life fighting for the union rights of Memphis sanitation workers on the eve of the launching of the Poor People’s Campaign. Today King’s spirit can be found in the fight for citizenship rights for undocumented workers and in the struggle of low-wage workers of all races to win a living wage. We can best carry on King’s legacy by embracing his insight that democracy can only be achieved when power is in the hands of the many rather than in the hands of the few.

Joseph M. Schwartz teaches political science at Temple University and is a national vice-chair o of the Democratic Socialists of America. His most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality.