Today's commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Education focused primarily on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. The speech, and Dr. King, merited this attention, and you can watch the complete speech above, but in thinking about the March on Washington, the historian in me wanted to offer some additional sources that help to add depth and complexity to its legacy (starting, of course, with the name: the march was for JOBS and freedom, which is too often forgotten). The NYTimes ran an op-ed with a similar focus from historian Mary Dudziak earlier today, which is also a good place to start.
The vision of a March on Washington as part of civil rights campaign was first developed by trade unionist and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who used the threat of such a protest to force FDR to sign Executive Order 8802, which brought the Fair Employment Practices Commission into existence in 1941. When the plan for a March on Washington was revived during the civil rights movement, Randolph and his longtime colleagues - Bayard Rustin, Norman Hill, and others - were the lead organizers. At the March, Randolph read the pledge (video below), which captures his vision of mass democratic non-violent protest as an instrument for social, political, and economic progress.
Bayard Rustin, Randolph's longtime friend and fellow organizer, was the chief organizer of the March on Washington. One of the movement's most important theorists and strategists, Rustin was often an off-camera hero, but in the clips below, you can hear him articulating his own vision of a free and equal society.
Walter Reuther, the progressive president of the United Auto Workers, was a key supporter and organizer of the march, and lend his union's clout to the proceedings, insisting that the struggle for jobs and freedom was of the utmost importance for ALL Americans. You can hear his speech below. His presence at the march is a reminder of the trade union lineage of civil rights organizing (as best exemplified by Rustin and Randolph), as well as of the power of a left-labor alliance that activists have tried hard to recapture in the intervening half-century.
John Lewis, the last living speaker from the original march, spoke this weekend about the legacy of the protest.
Back in 1963, Lewis was a 23-year-old student leader with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and his years of work on the front lines in the Deep South had radicalized his vision, as well as those of his fellow student activists. Lewis prepared to give a pointed, radical speech at the March, but was pressured by liberal activists, including Reuther, to tone down his rhetoric at the last minute. The original text of Lewis's speech survived, and is performed below by Danny Glover (introduced by the late Howard Zinn). The words are a valuable reminder of the challenges faced by Black Americans and civil rights activists in 1963, many of which persist today.
Finally, the March was a global event, one that inspired similar marches around the world. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born, Harlem-educated activist who was later deported to Britain in the McCarthy era, led a March on London that expressed Black British solidarity with the American struggle and made demands of its own upon the British government (among them a repeal of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act and justice for murdered Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane). You can hear Ms. Jones speaking below.