March on Washington was far from popular in 1963

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In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

As the 50th anniversary of the March on the Washington for Jobs and Freedom draws nearer, so does the nostalgia. In an effort to be on the right side of history, the naysayers and obstacles are often overlooked.

By now, it’s no secret that venerable civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, first conceived the mass protest more than twenty years before it actually happened.

In 1941, Randolph not only proposed the March but garnered widespread support, enough for newspapers to predict as many as 100,000 people descending on Washington D.C. Fearing such a demonstration, Roosevelt convinced Randolph to back down, issuing the historic Executive Order Number 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee that was charged with ending discrimination in defense industries, federal agencies and unions.

MLK is the missing piece

Rumblings of a new March on Washington began in 1962, around spring, with mainstream civil rights organization showing little interest in Randolph’s resurrected march concept.

Still, by the end of December, Randolph and protégé Bayard Rustin reportedly stepped into organizing mode. A month later, Rustin gave Randolph a three-page memo he prepared with Norman Hill and Tom Kahn outlining a mass protest that would draw 100,000 people centered upon “the economic subordination of the American Negro” as well as “the creation of more jobs for all Americans.”

The march, however, didn’t catch fire until, in the midst of the Birmingham Campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. signed on.

In David J. Garrow’s review of the book The March on Washington by William P. Jones for the New York Times, he notes that King told close associate Stanley David Levison in a phone call wiretapped by the F.B.I.: “We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration.”

King went on to say that “we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement.”

Kennedy’s mixed record on race

With President John F. Kennedy and Congress dragging their feet on meaningful civil rights legislation, King felt that he had few options left and hoped that a mass demonstration would prod Kennedy and Congress to enact meaningful change.

For maximum effect, mainstream civil rights organizations came together, in an alliance that included Randolph, a vice-president with the AFL-CIO in addition to heading the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League; James Farmer of the Conference of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and, of course, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Although they didn’t agree on everything, they were a formidable force that got President Kennedy’s attention.

Today, President Kennedy is widely viewed as a champion of civil rights but reality is another. In his piece “The 1963 March on Washington Changed Politics Forever” for The Fiscal Times, Bruce Bartlett writes “In truth, Kennedy had never been a strong supporter of civil rights. As a senator, he criticized the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 and said that Congress had no role to play in desegregating the public schools. JFK voted against bringing the 1957 civil rights bill up for a vote in the Senate and supported amendments by southerners to weaken its effectiveness.”

Looking at the prospect of a tough re-election campaign in 1964, Kennedy wasn’t too eager to rock the boat, especially with African-Americans so disenfranchised in the South. The same day Kennedy gave his historic nationally televised address on civil rights (also the night Medgar Evers was assassinated) on June 11, 1963, plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were publicly announced.

By June 22, Kennedy met with Randolph, Farmer, King, Lewis, Wilkins and Young at the White House in hopes they would call off the march. When they wouldn’t back down, he made plans to ensure the march was as peaceful as it could be but was never fully on board, even turning down a later offer to speak at the event.

‘The farce on Washington’

Needless to say, the largely Southern Democratic Congress wasn’t on board either. Infamous F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the march was the work of communist agitators. Some past and former members of SNCC weren’t pleased either. Stokely Carmichael refused to attend. Malcolm X referred to the march as “The Farce on Washington” and discouraged Nation of Islam members from participating. The Ku Klux Klan’s opposition surprised no one.

Although A. Philip Randolph was formally involved with the AFL-CIO, its president, George Meany, would not endorse the march but United Auto Workers did, with Walter Reuther speaking on the program. In fact, the organizers sought to involve as many white leaders as possible to dispel hysteria, a lot propagated by mainstream media that tens of thousands militant black people were headed for the nation’s capital.

“One small disturbance could set off a wave of mob violence,” claimed Business Week. Meet the Press’s Lawrence Spivak told Wilkins and Dr. King on air that many believed “it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.”

Liquor stores and bars shut down on August 28. Federal employees were given the option to say home. Valuable items in stores were cleared out. The Washington Senators even canceled their baseball showdown with the Minnesota Twins. D.C. police, along with 500 reserves and over 2000 members of the National Guard, were on hand. Reportedly 4000 army soldiers were stationed at Fort Myer, across the Potomac, and 15,000 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were also standing by.

The March on Washington actually began without its main leaders because of White House concerns as well as internal discord mainly generated by portions of John Lewis’s speech, which he modified.

Of course these concerns turned out to be unfounded, as the March on Washington remains one of the largest and most peaceful in our nation’s history, not to mention effective. The passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 is largely deemed impossible without it.

To this day, Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech still moves us as a nation. On the right side of history, it is impossible to comprehend how anyone could have doubted that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would usher in anything other than positive change.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.