Correction: I refer to today as if it were the 28th. The date I posted this is the 27th. I seem to not know what day it is!
The official name of the march we celebrate today is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Notice what comes first. Jobs. And while no one can deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant leader who served as a public face for the civil rights movement, we tend to forget that when he was assassinated in Memphis he was there to support sanitation workers striking for higher wages and employment rights. Dr. King had moved past the simple movement for integration of public facilities and voting rights to understand that gaining equality meant a great deal more that sitting at a lunch counter or riding in the front of a bus. Yes, those were monumental achievements, but true equality also means economic justice.
One man to whom we owe the March on Washington 50 years ago today is someone few have heard of: Asa Philip Randolph. Jack Curtis celebrated him in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. The headline and subhead kinda of say it all:
Economic equality: What the March on Washington didn’t win
Fifty years later, why we remember King and not A. Philip Randolph
Today we can still point to the high unemployment rates, the lack of health care in many places, the failing schools and know that black Americans suffer the most.
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 marchMOWM 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.
In February 1956, when Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery to assist with the nascent bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. had not personally embraced nonviolence. In fact, there were guns inside King’s house, and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.
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.
- Asa Philip Randolph: The often overlooked inspiration for the March on Washington (jacksonville.com)
- How March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin was betrayed by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (blogs.montrealgazette.com)
- Bayard Rustin: the forgotten man behind the 1963 march (shirazsocialist.wordpress.com)
- Bayard Rustin: the gay black pacifist at the heart of the March on Washington (theguardian.com)
- The March on Washington was a march for “Jobs and Freedom” (washingtonmonthly.com)