Economic justice and the March on Washington

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

Rep. Byron Rushing (left) from Roxbury and John Dukakais at the unveiling of the A. Phillip Randolph statue in Boston’s Back Bay Station.

Rep. Byron Rushing (left) from Roxbury and John Dukakais at the unveiling of the A. Phillip Randolph statue in Boston’s Back Bay Station.

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 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.
Randolph was a union organizer and Bayard Rustin (someone else you may never have heard of), often called “brother outsider” was a pacifist and gay.  Together they put together the event now best known for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.  Rustin was also a major influence in bringing Dr. King  to embrace non violence.
Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King, Jr.  in 1956

Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King, Jr.
in 1956

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.
Rustin was the speaker who read the list of the marcher’s demands.  You can read or listen to the transcript of Rustin reading the list of the demands in this link from WGBH radio.   They were seen as quite militant and including a living minimum wage. We all recited the pledge that committed ourselves to action.  I think it was in our programs.  (I found my button but so far haven’t located my program.)
As you watch the 50th anniversary coverage, remember A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.  Without them, we would not be celebrating this important milestone today,  We can honor them by supporting the continuing fight for economic justice.
Jack Curtis concludes

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.

Photograph:  Randolph Statue John Tlumacki/Globe staff
Photography:  Rustin and King Associated Press

Voting rights: 2013

This Brian McFadden cartoon seemed appropriate for posting as people are Marching on Washington for Jobs and Freedom once again.

mcfadden voting

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has it right in her dissent from the recent decision:  Why would we want to do away with something that is working?

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: My memories

Fifty years ago I was a sixteen year old high school student living in New Jersey.  My parents were community activists and very politically involved.  My mother and several of her friends decided to go to Washington for the march and took me and several of my high school friends.  I know there was some discussion about whether the march would turn violent and some calls were made (and long distance was a big deal back then) to my uncle who lived in D.C.  He must have reassured them and said that he had signed up to make sandwiches to give out to people who didn’t bring their own.  I remember being impressed because he was still a bachelor and, as far as I knew, wasn’t much of a cook.

So we kids were allowed to go along.  I remember the bus ride as long and the bathrooms at the Maryland House really horrible.  When we got to Washington, we asked to go off on our own and set off with a thermos jug of ice water (No bottles of water back then, just a jug and paper cups)  and some bags of oranges and peanut butter and jelly (they wouldn’t spoil in the hot weather) and set off.  It was an interesting little group:  me (Japanese American), at least one African American girlfriend, and several white American boys.  We wormed our way toward the front of where the march was to start instead of going to the end.  I remember people shouting and seeing the folks from the famous picture of the front of the march go by.  We fell in behind them.  I later learned that some people had already started marching and the dignitaries were trying to catch up.

Baez and Dylan

Baez and Dylan

Once we got to the Lincoln Memorial, we first found a spot to sit near some trees, but we soon moved closer to the Reflecting Pool so we could see better.  As it got hotter, and it was very hot,  we joined many by putting our feet in the pool.  We were pretty close to the front, close enough to see Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as well as Marion Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.  We heard rumors that President Kennedy was going to come join us.

I’ll be honest and say that there were a lot, a huge number, of speeches.  I don’t remember very many of them, to be honest.  I know that I was excited to hear and see Myrlie Evers, Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates as part of a tribute to women of the Movement.  But the speech that I remember best was not the famous one given by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The one I remember most clearly was given by John Lewis.   I think that was because he was with the Southern Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and I had met SNCC organizers.  Also he was young and had been arrested many times.  I had no idea at the time the speech was given that it had been censored, but it was still the most militant speech given that day.  He ended

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we  cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to  be free now.

We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of  seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you  holler “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and  we want it now.

We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the  price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all  of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.  Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet  of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete.  We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta  of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in  Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the  black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.

John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963

John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963

They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the  forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this  revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this  Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into  Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of  Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of  Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the  spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here  today.

By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we  shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them  together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up America,  wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

I still carry that image in my mind.  A young black man thundering, “We want our freedom and we want it now.”   But if he had included words he had wanted to include it is likely that the microphone would have been cut off.  The original text included

I want to know, which side is the federal government on?

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of  political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, “We  will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for  hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice  Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands  and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that  could and would assure us a victory.”

At sixteen those words would have sounded so much better than “I have a dream.”

View of the Lincoln Memorial

View of the Lincoln Memorial

I think this was taken relatively early in the day.  My friends and I were at the pool on the left, not too far back and for all I remember, we might already have been there when this was taken.

It was a long ride back to New Jersey and it turned out that I had heat exhaustion, but it was worth it to have been part of history.

There were about 250,000 people there and probably many more will claim that they were there, but I really was.  It was my first large demonstration, but by the time the War in Vietnam was winding down, I was a veteran at these events.  I’m not planning on attending the 50th Anniversary March this year, but I will be there in spirit.

Photograph:  Baez and Dylan uncredited from Wikipedia

Photograph:  John Lewis  Bettmann/ Corbis

Photograph:  Lincoln Memorial  Miles Hodges, Kingsacademy.com