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50 Years Ago, March on Washington Had More Radical Roots Than Remembered Today

August 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Historian William Jones joins Gwen Ifill to offer an overview of how the March on Washington came to be, why President Kennedy wanted it to be called off and what roles women of color played on that historic day. Their discussion is one a series of conversations looking back at the legacy of August 28, 1963.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is just three weeks away. And, tonight, we begin our commemoration of the event.

First, we hear from one of the participants, Dorothy Cotton. In the 60s, she was the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She organized workshops throughout the country in advance of the March.

 DOROTHY COTTON, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: By the third day of this five-day workshop, people were singing songs of:

(singing): I’m going to do what the spirit says do. I’m going to do what the spirit says do. What the spirit says do, I’m going to do, lord. I’m going to do what the spirit says do.

Guess what the next verse was?

(singing): I’m going to vote because the spirit says vote. I’m going to vote because the spirit says vote.

And they would make up verses. That was a song that black folks sang in churches.

(singing): Yes, I will go to jail if the spirit say jail.

By the fourth day of the workshop, there would be songs of intention, songs of declaration that I’m not going to take the abuse anymore.

The people who had attended the citizenship education workshops in large part were the folk who made up the big demonstrations that got a lot of news coverage, because people now are being introduced to political power and what it means to be a citizen in this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dorothy Cotton from Ithaca, New York, she’s one of the many participants whose firsthand accounts of the 1963 March on Washington appears in the new web series Memories of the March produced by public television stations around the nation for the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

And now Gwen Ifill kicks off our own series of conversations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event.

GWEN IFILL: In the summer of 1963, the lines were still clear, whites here, colored there. A full century after the slaves were emancipated, the average black family earned roughly half the income of white families. Black workers were twice as likely to be jobless.

Nine years after the Supreme Court outlawed separate but equal education, the majority of the nation’s schools remained segregated. In the South, Alabama Governor George Wallace pledged to keep the races apart.

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE, Alabama: Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.  


GWEN IFILL: As freedom riders and other activists fought to desegregate lunch counters and public transportation, many of them were arrested, attacked with dogs and sprayed with fire hoses. Some were killed.

Against that backdrop, more than 200,000 people from all over the country traveled to the nation’s capital 50 years ago this month, brought together without benefit of social media or broadly televised appeals, in cars, chartered buses and trains to participate in what the multiracial crowd would call the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

William Jones is professor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of the book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

Thanks for joining us for this conversation.

WILLIAM JONES, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Thanks for having me on.

GWEN IFILL: People have lots of ideas about the March. Even in my own household, we had a lot of ideas about what the March was and what it was supposed to be. How did it come to be?

WILLIAM JONES: Well, the roots of the March actually go back 20 years before 1963 to a march that was called and then called off at the last minute during the Second World War.

The leader of that march was A. Philip Randolph, who was black trade unionist, a labor leader, who was also the leader and the initiator of the March in 1963.

GWEN IFILL: So, A. Philip Randolph was really the star of the show originally — not the show, but of the event — originally, not Martin Luther King Jr.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right.

And that remained true through the March in 1963. He was the primary leader of that march. He was primarily seen as the leader. The press, for example, LIFE magazine carried a picture of A. Philip Randolph and his assistant, Bayard Rustin, on the cover of their issue after the March. And they were clearly seen as the leaders at the time.

GWEN IFILL: And you write in the book that the March was also — had its roots in more radical form of political thought than it is now thought, now remembered.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right.

A. Philip Randolph was a lifetime socialist. He was a leader in the Socialist Party. And he really strongly believed — and I think many of the leaders, including King, believed that economic justice and really an important change in the economic system was really critical to reaching the goals of racial equality that we now associate the March with.

GWEN IFILL: Except that we don’t hear that much — when we talk about associate the March, we don’t hear that much about economic, that this was a march for jobs and freedom. We hear a lot about the dream.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: But how did that change? How did that evolve?

WILLIAM JONES: Well, in some ways, it evolved because these were issues that were harder to talk about, that people were not as familiar with, and the solutions were I think more — seen as more radical.

Interestingly, Martin Luther King’s speech, the one that we all know about, is the one that is the least specific about the actual goals of the March, which included a whole list of economic reforms. In many ways, that was because he was the last speaker, and by the time he got on the stage, it wasn’t necessary to repeat the fact that they were calling for a public works program. They wanted to raise the minimum wage.

So, the things that he was — he was there to uplift at the end. And he — by the time he got on stage, it was very clear to everybody there what the full list of demands was.

GWEN IFILL: Did we take that, the dream from this march because that’s what we wanted to hear over time, that the uplift was less threatening or challenging than the demand?

WILLIAM JONES: I think, to a certain extent, that’s true.

Martin Luther King’s speech actually didn’t become primarily associated as the message of the March until after King’s assassination in 1968. And I think, in some ways, people looked back to that speech because it was an uplifting message to counteract the assassination, the anger and the sort of frustration of the late 1960s with the lack of progress towards racial equality.

And so it was — it was, in some ways, a hindsight, going back and looking for a positive message.

GWEN IFILL: So, the March wasn’t, for instance, just about access to schooling, which came to be the busing challenges later in the ’70s, but it was about creating better schools for everybody.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right. Right.

And I think, you know, if we remember, at the time the March took place, President Kennedy had already introduced a civil rights bill calling for integration in schools, access to public accommodations, protections of voting rights. Ten years before the March, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools is unconstitutional.

So that wasn’t really the goal of the March. The goal of the March was really strong federal action toward upholding those ideals of equality.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned President Kennedy. He wasn’t necessarily a fan of this march in advance of it.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right.

Well, he was — because he had introduced the civil rights bill before the March, he was afraid that a march would actually derail the bill, that it would give conservatives an excuse to vote against it. Here are these people who are rabble-rousers. We don’t want them forcing our hand. And so they — it was an excuse to oppose the bill in Kennedy’s mind.

And so he really — he worked very hard to try to convince A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King and other leaders of the March to call it off.

GWEN IFILL: Before she died, I interviewed Dorothy Height about that day. And she writes about it in her book.

And it became clear that women were marginalized on that stage and didn’t even speak at the March. How did that happen? Women were certainly the foot soldiers of the movement.

WILLIAM JONES: That’s right. And they were really central to organizing the March and organizing all of the demonstrations of the civil rights movement.

A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and other leaders believed that women shouldn’t be in positions of — as spokespeople of the March.

GWEN IFILL: It was that — it was that up-front?

WILLIAM JONES: They were very — well, they were pretty forward about it.

There’s an interesting — a really interesting story is that Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was the only woman on the organizing committee of the March and who had worked very closely with A. Philip Randolph since the 1930s, she went to Randolph and she said, you know, you really need to invite a woman to be in the official leadership of the March.

And she suggested Dorothy Height. And A. Philip Randolph didn’t answer her, but several weeks later, he went — they went to a meeting, and Anna Hedgeman found that she was still the only woman in the leadership of the March, and she really — she wrote a very angry letter to Randolph protesting this.

Some people suggested actually picketing Randolph when he was preparing for the March. And Hedgeman and Dorothy Height and other women decided to not make an issue of it right at the March. But then, the night after the March, they actually called a meeting at the national headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, which was the organization that Dorothy Height headed.

And at that meeting, they actually planned a series of meetings that, as I explain in the book, actually culminated in the formation of the National Organization of Women. And it really became a catalyzing moment in the rebirth of a feminist movement in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: And women of color were behind it, which is — gets lost.

WILLIAM JONES: They were at the center of this, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Which gets so lost.

So, in the end, this wasn’t the March that created violence or any of the upheaval which a lot of people feared for many reasons. Did that change the way the movement itself was perceived afterwards?


I mean, there was — the media, for example, expressed open surprise at the fact that there weren’t riots breaking out in Washington, that this was a peaceful march. And it really shifted the media portrayal. If you look at the way in which newspapers reported the March leading up to the March, up until the very day of the March, the big story was the danger of violence, and all the preparations that local officials were taking to prepare for violence.

The day after, it was an unequivocally positively portrayed event. It was — this was a huge success. Even Southern white newspapers portrayed it as a — you know, they emphasized the peacefulness of the March and the power of the speakers.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty years later, as you were doing your research for this book and — what would you say that we have forgotten about that day and the years leading up to that day?

WILLIAM JONES: Well, I think we have forgotten the — most of the speakers at the March. We have forgotten most of the demands of the March, which were not — as I said earlier, not just toward racial equality and legal equality, but federal — strong federal enforcement of civil rights laws, federal intervention in the economy to ensure that people have access to not just a job, but a well-paid job, to decent housing, to decent schools, and that these things were demands that were made on behalf, not just of African-Americans, but all Americans, and that this was a really expansive and inclusive agenda that I don’t think we often associate with this event.

GWEN IFILL: William Jones.

The name of the book is “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

WILLIAM JONES: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.