David McReynolds : Reflections on the ’63 March on Washington

A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin on the cover of Life Magazine, September 6, 1963.

A socialist remembers:
Reflections on the March on Washington

The climate in Washington, D.C. that day was timorous. White Washingtonians feared some riotous upheaval.

By David McReynolds | The Rag Blog | August 24, 2013

August 28th will be the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedem.

Increasingly I realize, at 83, that there just aren’t that many of us around who were there that August day 50 years ago. I knew Bayard Rustin — chief organizer of the March — (and will return to his name in a moment) and like many of us in the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party, and virtually all left organizations, was involved in the organizing for the event.

The decision to hold the March in mid-week rather than on a Saturday was very deliberate: Saturday marches are fairly easy to build, since few have to take time off from work, but a demonstration in the middle of the week means real commitment.

The climate in Washington, D.C. that day was timorous. White Washingtonians feared some riotous upheaval. It was then (and still is) easy for tourists to be unaware that the bulk of the population of the city is black. And what, the white minority wondered, would happen with thousands of angry Blacks coming to town.

Many businesses closed down. President Kennedy had made serious efforts to persuade Dr. King and the March organizers to call off the event. For a weekday the city was remarkably quiet. One must keep in mind the political climate of 1963.

The Civil Rights Revolution (it was nothing less than that) had only begun in December of 1955 in Montgomery. Ahead lay the bloodshed, the murders, the police violence, all of which had brought the leadership of the Black community into agreement on the need for some powerful symbolic action — and that action was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It’s important, first, to look at the slogan: Jobs and Freedom. The link was very deliberate — for what was freedom without a job?

I remember three things about the day.

One was the sound of thousands of souls, black and white, marching together toward the Lincoln Memorial, with the chant “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” It was truly black and white together. “White Washington” may have been fearful, but the trade unions were out in full force, and church and social justice groups had turned out their congregations and members.

The second thing I remember — and I suspect few saw it — was the failed effort of the American Nazi, George Lincoln Rockwell, to stir up a riot. I give him credit for raw courage: he stood up on a park bench and began an oration against “Kikes, Niggers and Communists.” What happened next was a testament to careful planning on the part of the March organizers. Several dozen young Black youth formed a large circle around Rockwell and his followers, and, with their backs facing Rockwell, linked arms to make it clear that no one would be able to get through to the man and give him the violence he had sought to provoke.

The third thing I remember was King’s speech. Sometimes at these marches and demonstrations — and over the years I’ve attended many — I simply made sure I got to the rallying point so the “count” would be maximized, and then I drifted away for a drink (those being the days when I drank) or a hamburger. There are so many speeches, and they are so boring. But this time I stayed — and remember as if it were yesterday the cadence of King as he spoke, “I have a dream”.

There were, I was aware, compromises; John Lewis, the courageous young Black civil rights leader, had had to to modify his comments a bit. (I suspect Lewis, looking back today, might realize the compromises in his language were much less important than the March itself.)

For Bayard Rustin the March was a great triumph. Life magazine carried a cover with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin standing together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I’ve been invited to take part in a forum at a “Celebration of the Life of Quaker Bayard Rustin ” on Sunday, August 25, at the Friends Meeting in Washington. They will show the film, Brother Outsider, followed by a panel with Mandy Carter, Bennett Singer, and myself.

I’m reluctant to take part, since, while Bayard was a deeply important part of my life — he and A.J. Muste were the two mentors for my politics. I knew him well, and had under him at Liberation magazine and the War Resisters League. But I feel that the political path Bayard took after the March was a disturbing shift to the right, and that this must be discussed if we are to confront his life honestly.

As I said, I’m reluctant to do this since Bayard was one of the most courageous men I ever knew.

In connection with the events this month there is a new book out by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans. Published by Monthly Review Press, the book is due for print in September. (I have the uncorrected proof, which Paul Le Blanc was kind enough to send me.) Bayard had been very concerned that the March would not lead to the next steps, which he felt should be an effort to put forward a political and economic program to give the civil rights movement a “floor,” a program for full employment.

The original Freedom Budget foundered because the authors sought to sell it to the publilc without realizing the need to take on the military budget. From Bayard’s point of view, such an approach would “politicize” the budget and sink it, but in the real world of politics, which somehow Bayard failed to grasp, it was impossible to advance such a radical proposal at a time when the Vietnam War was so soon to absorb the attention of the nation.

It is good to have two socialist thinkers sketch out not only the history of the original Freedom Budget, but also give us an updated look at what such a budget might look like today.

[David McReynolds was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President in 1980 and 2000, and for 39 years on the staff of the War Resisters League. He also served a term as Chair of the War Resisters International. He is retired and lives with his two cats on New York’s lower east side. He can be reached at davidmcreynolds7@gmail.com. Read more articles by David McReynolds on The Rag Blog.

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