Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Aug. 22, 23 or 24
People this week commemorating 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom must concede that 50 years later, the goals of one of the most effective demonstrations for human rights in the planet’s history is unfinished.
It’s also hoped that people recall the protest for what African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and white union president Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers then intended: a “coalition of conscience” involving Civil Rights, labor and religious organizations working for economic opportunities as well as racial justice.
Americans should remember or realize what a momentous march that was. Contributing to Congress passing the first effective Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction – the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) – the March drew people traveling on thousands of buses, dozens of chartered trains and planes, and countless cars. Speakers, singers, artists and athletes all took part as well as everyday people. The crowd between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial heard from a Catholic Archbishop, a rabbi and a Presbyterian pastor; Mahalia Jackson sang, as did Bob Dylan with Joan Baez, Odetta and Peter, Paul & Mary; showing their support were celebrities including Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Tony Curtis, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Billy Eckstine, Blake Edwards, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, Burt Lancaster, Rita Moreno, Paul Newman, Rosa Parks, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Robert Ryan, Josh White and Joanne Woodward.
A few figures or didn’t make it. James Farmer of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) had been arrested at a Louisiana protest; author James Baldwin wasn’t permitted to speak because others feared his remarks would be too inflammatory; John Lewis – the long-time Congressman from Georgia, but in 1963 the 23-year-old head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – had his prepared comments toned down by organizers.
The march was intended to raise the nation’s awareness beyond news coverage that was becoming routine, if not opposed. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized, “If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong to the capital, they will be jeopardizing their cause.”
Causes, please. Randolph connected race and work, telling demonstrators, “We all want public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. We want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
Reuther, from the UAW, added, “I share the view that the struggle for Civil Rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American. It is the responsibility of every American to share the impatience of the Negro American. American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performances in this important area.”
Progress was made, but it was not enough and it didn’t continue.
“While Wall Street was bailed out and the Federal Reserve spends over $80 billion a month to fatten the banks [with Quantitative Easing],” commented Mark Vorpahl, a union steward and writer in Portland, Ore., “cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are promoted and the scourge of unemployment, growing poverty and institutional racism remain unaddressed.”
Some of the March’s 10 demands haven’t been met. Two of the unfinished goals announced that day –and still desperately needed – are demands for a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages,” and “a national minimum wage that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.”
So the effort by the inspiring outpouring of the 250,000-plus marchers is incomplete; so work waits to be done – but that’s not surprising.
“The path to fundamental social change is not straight and clearly paved,” Vorpahl said. “Generations are consumed by building social movements powerful enough to topple an unjust status quo, only to fall back, sometimes for decades, if they haven't been able to pull out the economic and political grievances by their roots. Even when no substantial progress is being made or gains are rolled back, the lessons of previous struggles are still absorbed and adjusted according to modern conditions by new layers of activists.”
The 73-year-old John Lewis, author of a new graphic novel, “March,” is scheduled to return to the demonstration site Aug. 24 and to speak. One hopes he repeats his stirring 1963 refrain, “We want our freedom and we want it now.”
It may be late, but it’s not too late.
[PICTURED: Photo from 1963 from commandposts.com]