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BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2020: 1963 March on Washington pushed for economic justice — not just freedom

Large crowds gather at the Lincoln Memorial to demonstrate for the civil rights movement in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. (AP)

It’s safe to say that many people in this country believe the leaders of the civil rights movement were the conceivers, organizers and deliverers of the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington. But that is simply not true.

The conceivers, organizers and deliverers were black labor union leaders — most notably A. Philip Randolph, head of the pioneering Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and its members. They revived a plan called the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), which had been developed by Randolph in the early 1940s to protest continued economic injustice and white supremacy in America.

President John F. Kennedy, like his White House predecessors, had made little effort to deal with economic injustice and white supremacy, including that by the influential AFL-CIO federation of labor unions.

Those moved to take action were black labor leaders. They included Cleveland Robinson, secretary-treasurer of District 65, a union of retail, wholesale and department store workers in New York City; L. Joseph Overton, vice president of the Negro American Labor Council, and Maida Springer Kemp, an activist with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Another important contributor was Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who Randolph had chosen to head the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee — created to continue MOWM’s work to move the U.S. government to institute fair employment opportunities for black workers and desegregate America’s armed forces.

The planned 1940 Washington, D.C., protest march was called off after President Franklin Roosevelt established the 1941 Fair Employment Practices Committee, which signed into law his Executive Order 8802 “banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work.”

Another important contributor to the 1963 march was Bayard Rustin, a controversial political theorist and civil rights strategist who Randolph would later praise as “the man who organized this whole thing.” The preamble to the 1963 March on Washington, published in the book, “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin,” includes the following: “The immediate crisis confronting black labor grows out of the unresolved crisis in the national economy. History shows that the peculiar disadvantage suffered by the Negro as the result of segregation and discrimination are alleviated in times of relatively full employment and aggravated when unemployment is high. …”

Black labor leaders were determined to confront the federal government’s complacency with a march on Washington that focused on jobs for black people.

Contingent from United Steelworkers union joins the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Clarity, Ed/New York Daily News)

Once the date was selected, they moved to make the march a reality.

Robinson’s District 65 Union chartered three trains and 18 buses to bring thousands of union members, their families and friends to the march from New York City, Newark, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Springer, of the garment workers’ union, arranged for a 16-car train and eight buses to transport thousands more to Washington. Many others came by plane from throughout the country. Reportedly, some even walked to Washington from New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Marchers were discouraged from driving their cars because of the possibility of serious traffic jams. Also, there was the very real possibility and fear that black folks driving to the march would be targeted by white supremacists.

At the urging of civil rights leaders, the march’s slogan became the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After numerous meetings and sometimes strong arguments, the march details were hashed out by the heads of America’s major civil rights organizations of the day – Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young of the National Urban League; James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The march plan became reality on Aug. 28, 1963. According to brilliant, perceptive journalist and historian Lerone Bennett Jr., the more than 200,000 participants “covered both sides of the reflecting pool and stretched almost a mile to the east.”

Plotting the route and other details of 1963 March on Washington — coming on Aug. 28 — are (l. to r.) march organizer A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a key aide to Randolph, met on Aug. 3 in march headquarters in Harlem. (Bettmann/Bettmann Archive)

Speaking to the marchers, most of whom were black, a proud Randolph said, “We have gathered here today for the largest demonstration in the history of this nation. Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are the advance guard for a massive revolution for jobs and freedom. … Those who deplore our militancy, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace are in fact, supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension rather than enforcing racial democracy.”

King was well aware of the serious problem of economic injustice confronting black workers. In his speech, he stated, “In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir….

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So, we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Today, Randolph, Robinson, Overton, Springer, Hedgeman, Rustin and other black labor leaders might agree that America is still defaulting on the promissory note cited by King.

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