The Day After the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

August 28, 1963 was a high-water mark for the civil rights movement: the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Two goals of the march were to end segregation laws and secure voting rights for all regardless of race, as promised by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  The March on Washington highlighted ongoing protest activities carried on throughout the South to make these promises a reality.  These demands of the March, thanks to ongoing massive protests forcing through Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, were to a significant degree achieved.  Of course, there are attempts to whittle away at these gains, including by a majority of today’s Supreme Court.

The fact remains, however, that one of the primary goals of the March—jobs for all—has yet to be achieved. In fact, we are further away from this now than we were then, fifty years ago.

Fear, Smears, and the Kernel of Truth

Given its now iconic place in the history of the twentieth century, it is all too easy to forget the intense hostility and fear that powerful forces felt in regard to the 1963 March of Washington.  Many conservatives and even some liberals perceived it as dangerous radicalism.

The prestigious Herald Tribune voiced the view of many of these forces when it editorialized: “If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital . . . they will be jeopardizing their cause. . . . The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of uncontained violence if Congress doesn’t deliver.  This is the kind of threat that can make men of pride, which most Congressmen are, turn stubborn.”

Considerable hostility emanated from J. Edgar Hoover and his Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  A Justice Department lawyer of the time later commented: “Everything you have read about the FBI, how it was determined to destroy the movement, is true.”  As Pulitzer-Prize journalist Russell Baker has commented, Hoover was “a terrifying old tyrant whose eyes and ears were everywhere.” Since its emergence in the 1950s, Hoover had been warning that “the Negro situation is being exploited fully and continuously by Communists on a national scale.”  Hoover did what he could to discredit the 1963 March with fears of violence and Communist infiltration.  Supplied with FBI reports, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy saw the upcoming March as “very, very badly organized,” with “many groups of Communists trying to get in.”

The March was brilliantly organized, and participation was incredibly broad and “respectable.”  Yet it is also true that the leader of the March, A. Philip Randolph, the country’s most venerable African American trade unionist, was also a life-long socialist.   For Randolph, the “S” word meant a democratic economy, controlled not by the richest 1%, but by the 99%.  He saw racial justice as inseparable from economic justice.  The key organizers of the March, headed by Randolph’s capable lieutenant Bayard Rustin, shared his convictions.  So did the March’s most famous speaker, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Radicalism and/or Moderation

The link that Randolph, Rustin, and King saw between racial and economic justice was documented by Michael Harrington’s 1962 bestseller, The Other America.  Harrington stunned readers by describing “the other America” in which one-fourth of the people in the United States lived in poverty.  Although a majority of the poor were white, poverty and unemployment historically afflicted a much higher percentage of blacks than whites.

“If all the discriminatory laws in the United States were immediately repealed,” Harrington noted, “race would still remain as one of the most pressing moral and political problems in the nation.”  Randolph, Rustin, and King agreed that racial inequality could only be fully overcome by providing decent jobs for all, with the consequent elimination of poverty.

It was now an entirely new situation, and the thinking of King and his advisors shifted dramatically.  “We are on a breakthrough,” King insisted.  “We need a mass protest.”  A decision was made to work out a common perspective with Randolph and Rustin.  Civil rights would be co-equal with economic justice. The name of the March was now “for Jobs and Freedom.”

Key forces from the radical-activist wing of the movement rallied to the project:  the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).   Cleveland Sellers, one of a number of leading SNCC activists drawn into helping to organize the action, recalls the way Rustin outlined it to them:

The march, which was [to be] sponsored by SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the NAACP and the Urban League, was being conducted to emphasize the problems of poor blacks.  It was to be a confrontation between black people and the federal bureaucracy.  Rustin told us that some people were talking about disrupting Congress, picketing the White House, stopping service at bus and train stations, and lying down on the runways at the airports.

Things turned out somewhat differently.  The less militant National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and National Urban League insisted on a far more moderate and controlled scenario as a price for their participation.  It would now be a one-day action, on August 28, 1963, with the civil disobedience, the confrontations, and most of the explicit radicalism combed out.

As the central organizer of the March, Rustin argued: “The march will succeed if it gets a hundred thousand people—or one hundred fifty thousand or two hundred thousand more—to show up in Washington.”  One of his key aides, Norman Hill, commented later: “Bayard always knew we would have to trade in militancy for numbers. . . .  Four things mattered—numbers, the coalition, militancy of action, and militancy of words.  He was willing to give up militant action for the other three.”

To what extent did the March live up to the revolutionary hopes and expectations that animated its key organizers?  To what extent had that been compromised away?  The most unrelenting criticism came from Malcolm X, in his “Message to the Grass Roots”:

The same white element that put Kennedy into power—labor, the Catholics, the Jews, and liberal Protestants—the same clique that put Kennedy in power, joined the march.

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong.  You integrate it with cream, you make it weak.  But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee.  It used to be hot, it becomes cool.  It used to be strong, it becomes weak.  It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.  This is what they did with the march on Washington.  They joined it.  They didn’t integrate it.  They infiltrated it.  They joined it, became part of it, took it over.  And as they took it over, it lost its militancy.  It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising.  Why it even ceased to be a march.  It became a picnic, a circus.  Nothing but a circus, with . . . clowns leading it, white clowns and black clowns. . . .

No, it was a sellout.  It was a takeover. . . .

SNCC’s Stokley Carmichael voiced the disappointment of many militant activists about the dilution of the March’s militancy to fit the demands of the White House.  “Which is not to say that Bayard and Mr. Randolph do not deserve credit,” he added. “They surely did.  For their initiative and persistence had forged that alliance that made the march possible.  And the march itself?  It was a spectacular media event . . . a ‘political’ event choreographed entirely for the television audience.”  Yet, the fact that millions of people throughout the United States and the world were watching an unabashedly pro-civil rights spectacle in 1963, when powerful legal and extra-legal forces were fighting to save the racist Jim Crow system by any means necessary, had a profound impact on the course of events.

Cleveland Sellers shared much of Carmichael’s sourness over the de-radicalization of the March. But there was another aspect to the event.  “The people who got the most out of the march were the poor farmers and sharecroppers whom SNCC organizers brought from Mississippi, Alabama, and Southwest Georgia,” Sellers concluded.  “The march was a tremendous inspiration to them.  It helped them believe that they were not alone, that there really were people in the nation who cared what happened to them.”

The great novelist and essayist James Baldwin caught the challenge posed by the March: “The day was important in itself, and what we do with this day is even more important.”  The fact is that Randolph, Rustin, and their socialist comrades were concerned, precisely, was what to do with the day.  Their plan all along had been to utilize the momentum of the March, the coalition it represented, and the militant grassroots struggles against Jim Crow that it reflected, to move forward on what they saw as a revolutionary path.

Under the auspices of a Socialist Party conference, held for two days after the March and drawing 400 activists, Randolph, Rustin, and their co-thinkers projected a campaign that would link the struggles for civil rights and economic justice. The independent journalist I. F. Stone was powerfully impressed:

Far superior to anything I heard at the monument [i.e., the Lincoln Memorial where the March’s speeches were given] were the discussions I heard the next day at a civil rights conference organized by the Socialist Party. . . . The direction in which full emancipation lies was indicated when Mr. Randolph spoke of the need to extend the public sector of the economy. His brilliant assistant on the March, Bayard Rustin, urged an economic Master Plan to deal with the technological unemployment that weighs so heavily on the Negro and threatens to create a permanently depressed class of whites and blacks living precariously on the edges of an otherwise affluent society.

Randolph was determined to push for the achievement of “the full goals of the 1963 March.” A detailed plan, unveiled three years later, christened a “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, was designed to eliminate poverty and unemployment within a ten-year period.

Hope and Defeat

The plan was endorsed by over 200 prominent figures from the civil rights movement, the labor movement, academia, and the religious community.  Randolph saw the success of this effort as depending on “a mighty coalition among the civil rights and labor movements, liberal and religious forces, students and intellectuals—the coalition expressed in the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.”  A leading proponent was Martin Luther King, Jr., who explained:

The journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone.  We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettoes and build new cities for all.  We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all.  This human rights emphasis is an integral part of the Freedom Budget and sets, I believe, a new and creative tone for the great challenge we yet face.

According to the AFL-CIO News, those supporting the plan included “people in the civil rights, trade union, social welfare, education, and religious organizations.”  It summarized the program in this way

Restore and maintain full employment.

Guarantee a minimum adequate income to all who cannot be so employed.

Assure adequate income for all employed.

Wipe out slum ghettoes and provide a decent home for every American family.

Provide modern medical care for all Americans.

Provide educational opportunities for all within the limits of their ambition, ability, and means.

Wipe out other examples of neglect, including air and water pollution, transportation snarls, and inadequate use of our great natural resources.

Correlate full employment with sustained production and economic growth.

Yet, to a large extent, Freedom Budget supporters were tied in with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party under whose leadership the Vietnam War was dramatically escalating.  Some, such as AFL-CIO President George Meany. were pro-war hawks, and many, such as leaders of the NAACP and Urban League, decided to “go along” with the war in order to safeguard political alliances with the White House.  Such considerations caused even Randolph and Rustin to mute their own disagreements on the war.  Many other Freedom Budget partisans,  most dramatically Martin Luther King, Jr., felt compelled to oppose the war openly and help mobilize mass opposition to it.  They saw this as the most effective, as well as the most moral, way of standing up for the vision projected by the Freedom Budget.  King was struck down while struggling for the Freedom Budget’s principles, through the Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

As it turned out, however, most politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, saw the Freedom Budget’s vision and goals as too radical.  And with the Vietnam War raging, it was argued that it was not possible to increase government spending on both “guns and butter.”

Renewing the Struggle for the Full Goals—Jobs and Freedom

Some years after the 1966 launch of the Freedom Budget, and after his old mentor’s death, Bayard Rustin lamented:

In Randolph’s view, perhaps the most important contribution he attempted was a failure.  That was his introduction of the Freedom Budget for all Americans.  While he got the signatures of many, many liberals in all walks of life and civil rights leaders to endorse the Freedom Budget, they never considered it a priority.  Randolph foresaw the further decline of the black family—and all the consequent pathology, including drugs, crime, illegitimacy, etc.—and the creation of economic “untouchables” in the black, Hispanic, and white communities, and general decline of the working class should the Freedom Budget not be accepted.

A dramatic decline in the quality of life afflicts our communities and families fifty years after the March on Washington, and this holds true for a majority of the 99%, regardless of race.

Barring radical changes, the masses of poor and working class men and women will be condemned to lives of disappearing hope. Austerity is everywhere the watchword of our economic and political rulers.

It is time for a new version of the Freedom Budget, and the development of a mass action strategy that would be capable of making it a reality.  For us, this means that it is long past time to put forward the kinds of demands that the mainstream political parties are unlikely to embrace, just as neither the Democratic nor the Republican party was inclined to accept labor rights or racial justice before the labor movement and civil rights movement were able to mobilize massive and militant activity to force the issue.

A New Freedom Budget must emerge from a broad discussion among the forces whose strength and commitment would be required to bring about the necessary change.  As a contribution to that discussion, we want to conclude with some thoughts on the kinds of principles and objectives without which our freedom will never be achieved.

Our conception of the New Freedom Budget is grounded in five fundamental principles.

1. Liberty and justice for all: equal rights, equal opportunities—no exceptions.  These are among the highest ideals that are articulated probably by the overwhelming majority of people in our society.  The New Freedom Budget must allow for and help to nourish the free development of each and every individual—with no exceptions in relation to race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, age, sexual preference, political orientation, physical characteristics, and the like.

2. Deepening democracy—politically, socially, economically.  Democracy, rule by the people, must be the keystone of the New Freedom Budget.  There is a growing conviction throughout the world that the political, social, and economic institutions of society must not be subordinated to tyrants or privileged minorities.  The resources on which all of us are dependent, the resources that make our society possible, should be overseen democratically for the benefit of all.  The notion that our country’s economy should develop as an integral part of a democratic commonwealth is sometimes labeled socialism—which is why the authors of this book consider themselves to be socialists.  Regardless of such labels, we are convinced that a thoroughgoing democracy must be a defining principle of the New Freedom Budget.

3. Commitment to future generations.  We do not conceive of the New Freedom Budget as some kind of a “quick fix”—its principles and objectives are meant to be durable, providing for the freedom and well-being of people in the here-and-now, but also their children and their children’s children, and beyond.  This has obvious implications for the manner in which our resources must be utilized as we seek to provide for the needs of all.

4. Comprehensive solution—a rejection of  tokenism and fragmented “remedies.”  We are persuaded by the insight of A. Philip Randolph, who commented on the fact that in efforts for racial and economic justice “we encounter the pessimists and the tokenists, those who counsel ‘gradualism’ and those who urge piecemeal and haphazard remedies for deep-rooted and persistence evils.”  Randolph’s response to this holds true for the New Freedom Budget—that such a limited approach  “becomes an excuse for not beginning or for beginning on a base too small to support the task, and for not setting goals; and the scattered, fragmented remedies, lacking priorities and coordination, often work at cross purposes.”

5. Harmony with global neighbors.  This principle addresses what we see as one of the most serious limitations of the earlier Freedom Budget, highlighted by its “neutrality” in regard to the U.S. war in Vietnam.  The United States cannot resolve its own problems if it is guided by a foreign policy designed to establish or maintain something like “the American Century,” which meant domination of the global political economy by the United States.  The well-being of the people of the United States cannot be secured at the expense of other peoples.  There must be harmony between U.S. foreign policy and the domestic policies associated with the New Freedom Budget.  As Martin Luther King insisted, policies of violence and exploitation must be replaced with those of mutual respect, cooperation, and economic justice.

The New Freedom Budget will need a specific list of objectives to reflect the economic and social changes we want to see. We believe we must struggle to win:

1. Full employment

2. Adequate income for all who are employed

3. A guaranteed minimum adequacy level of income for those who cannot or should not work

4. Adequate and safe housing for all

5. Health care for all

6. Educational opportunity for all

7. Secure and expanded transportation infrastructure

8. Secure and expanded social security

9. Food security for all

10. A sustainable environment

11. Cultural freedom and enrichment for all (arts, parks, sports, recreation)

12. Reduction in the inequality of income and wealth, to ensure realization of objectives

There is much to be learned from the history of the 1963 March on Washington and its Freedom Budget aftermath,  an inspiring history with both positive and negative lessons. We are certain of one thing. Unless radical change occurs, unless the power of the 1 percent is broken and the power of the 99% is asserted, the people of the United States—and nearly every other country in the world—are soon going to inhabit a world in which most of us will experience declining economic and political security, rising workplace exploitation, and a rapidly deteriorating environment. The time to think, to act, to make the world we want, is now.

Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates are the authors of A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today.