Fifty years ago this Wednesday, nearly a quarter million people assembled in the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—the formal name for a demonstration that would become a landmark event in the American quest for racial justice.
The coda to that long day of oratory and song, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, stands as one of the greatest speeches in American history, indelibly fused to our collective recollection of the march. The words and cadence of King’s speech are familiar to every schoolchild, treasured for their eloquence and what we look back on as their powerful effect. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which President Kennedy had proposed two months before the march, seemed to bear out the power of those dreams.
Yet the momentum, and dominant message, behind the march was not simply the battle for civil rights. Its agenda was a broader and more radical one of economic equality, spearheaded by a less well known American figure, A. Philip Randolph. Randolph’s work toward economic and racial justice is recognized as pioneering; today, statues of him can be found both in Washington’s Union Station and in the center of Boston’s Back Bay Station. But that we now associate the march so deeply with King tells us something about which visions expressed that day emerged as part of a triumphant narrative in American history, and which remain largely to be fulfilled.
The director of the march and its opening speaker, A. (for Asa) Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979) was established by 1963 as the century’s preeminent force on black labor and the dean of American civil rights leaders. Born in Crescent City, Fla., the son of a minister and a seamstress, Randolph moved in 1911 to Harlem, where he became a staunch socialist, a labor organizer, and a renowned soapbox orator. In 1925, Randolph was named the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which he guided for over four decades.
In 1941, Randolph leapt onto the national stage. He and his fellow activist Bayard Rustin initiated what they called the March on Washington Movement, or MOWM, with the goal of staging a massive march to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries. An alarmed Franklin Roosevelt summoned Randolph to the White House. Just one week later, Roosevelt issued an order prohibiting workplace discrimination throughout the nation’s defense industries, which led Randolph to call off the scheduled march
MOWM lasted only through 1946. But in the 1960s, as the nation’s African-Americans faced high unemployment and low wages and the country was shocked by violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators in the South, Randolph and Rustin turned to the same organizing tactics. In early 1963, Rustin and three associates addressed a memo to Randolph, then 74, calling for “mass descent” upon Washington, with 100,000 participants protesting “the economic subordination of the American Negro.” They envisioned a groundswell of protest calling for freedom and jobs.
Randolph and Rustin, aided by labor organizers and civil rights activists, organized the march with the dual goals of ending racial segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South and achieving economic equality for all Americans.
On Aug. 23, 1963, “freedom buses” and “freedom trains” brought marchers from across the country to Washington in numbers unimagined by the organizers. To a sea of faces in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Randolph declared in his opening remarks, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” He insisted “that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.” In the civil rights revolution, he exhorted, “The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality.”
The 10 speakers that day included Roy Wilkins, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Walter
Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers; Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; and John Lewis, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (and currently a US representative from Georgia). Their demands centered on passage of John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which mandated equal access to public accommodation and voting rights in the South; full employment and job training; better wages; increased social services funding; and strong federal action to uphold the ideals of equality. All the speakers, including King, believed that economic justice and significant change in the economic system were critical to reaching the goal of racial equality.
With the cameras of the nation’s television networks trained on the proceedings, Rustin read out the full list of their demands; as left-wing
journalist Murray Kempton commented, “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.” By the time King went on stage, there was no need for him to reiterate the day’s agenda. Six hours after Randolph’s opening speech, King re-ignited the marchers by capping the long day with his compelling, uplifting vision of interracial harmony. The speech garnered immediate and widespread praise.
For its report on the march, Life magazine carried on its cover a photo of Randolph and Rustin, the bearers of the march’s central message. While King had a dream, Randolph and the other organizers focused on the fight they had on their hands.
But King’s emphasis on integration and legal equality gradually came to be seen as the primary impetus for the movement. In the years since, the optimistic and basically patriotic appeal of King’s speech has served to eclipse the march’s agenda and distort the popular understanding of its significant challenge to the status quo. The standard narrative skirts the more controversial, no less patriotic, themes of the march, and the radicalism that was front and center that day.
Randolph’s legacy is not forgotten, including in Boston. In the waiting area of Back Bay Station sits a larger-than life statue of Randolph by sculptor Tina Allen, dedicated in 1988 by Governor Michael Dukakis. Speakers at the dedication ceremony, including state Representative Byron Rushing, hailed the contributions to the railroad industry by porters and waiters from the black community, many of whom had lived in the Roxbury and South End neighborhoods by the station. A quote inscribed in the monument’s base attests to Randolph’s militant stance: “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given. It is exacted.”
As we look back over the last 50 years, and look around at a country with rising and racially inflected economic inequality, that revolutionary spirit sits less easily than the hope of King’s “dream speech.” We embrace King’s dream in part because we sense that the country has indeed gone some way down that long road to freedom, and his vision can still set us dreaming and move us forward. But focusing on the demands by Randolph that fell to the wayside, we see even more glaringly that the march’s core aims of economic justice are not close to fruition; even today, we stand at the start of that path. It’s been a long time coming, and it may be a long time yet to come.Jack Curtis, who tutors writing at Bunker Hill Community College, is a writer and editor living in Brookline.