5 Secrets of the March on Washington

Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the planned March on Washington program, points to a map showing the line of march for the Aug. 28 demonstration for civil rights. Rustin took part in a news conference at the New York City Headquarters in New York on Aug. 24, 1963.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Aug. 21, 2013, 2:53 p.m.

The March on Wash­ing­ton, which took place 50 years ago this month, is bathed in a warm glow for good reas­on. But the story of that day, bey­ond Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is sur­pris­ing, funny, poignant.

Here are a few secrets — or little-re­marked-upon as­pects — of the day worth keep­ing in mind as the 50th-an­niversary com­mem­or­a­tions ap­proach.

King’s Speech Was Im­pro­vised — and Edgy.

All schoolkids are taught the “con­tent of their char­ac­ter” part of King’s ad­dress. After the march, when John F. Kennedy wel­comed King and oth­er civil-rights lead­ers to the White House, he said to the rev­er­end: “I have a dream.” “That was like Kennedy say­ing ‘You nailed it,’” says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer prize-win­ning King bio­graph­er.

King knew he had hit his mark, Branch told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. But while the “dream” sec­tion of the speech is best-re­membered, the first part of King’s speech had been an angry lament about the con­di­tion of blacks in Amer­ica, which he likened to a check re­turned for in­suf­fi­cient funds.

The “dream” por­tion of the speech was semi-im­pro­vised. King had used the dream idea be­fore, in speeches earli­er in 1963, in­clud­ing one to black in­sur­ance agents. King owes a debt to the Bible’s Book of Isai­ah, from which he bor­rowed. But much of the speech that day was ori­gin­al. King also left out some of the an­gri­er and clunki­er lines from his pre­pared speech. For ex­ample: “And so today, let us go back to our com­munit­ies as mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tion­al as­so­ci­ation for the ad­vance­ment of cre­at­ive dis­sat­is­fac­tion.”

For what it’s worth, The New York Times gave King top billing the next day. The Wash­ing­ton Post de­voted its front page to oth­er lead­ers of the march.

D.C. Was Ready for Ri­ots.

The pro­spect of all of those pro­test­ers com­ing to Wash­ing­ton scared the crap out of the Dis­trict of Columbia. As Branch has noted, there were not only 4,000 fed­er­al troops poised in D.C. and 15,000 para­troop­ers on standby, but the city’s li­quor stores were closed for the first time since Pro­hib­i­tion.

Most D.C. busi­nesses shut down for the day. Of course, the day turned out to be in­cred­ibly peace­ful. News­pa­pers favored the word “or­derly.” And it was, which helped give the civil-rights move­ment even more mor­al force. The or­gan­izers of the march even offered to help clean up af­ter­wards, but the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice, which con­trols the monu­ment, turned them down.

A Gay Man Led the Way.

The or­gan­iz­ing geni­us be­hind the March on Wash­ing­ton was civil-rights vet­er­an Ba­yard Rustin. What is less-known now, or then, is that he was gay. That might have not been known at all had Rustin not been ar­res­ted on what were then called mor­als charges (he was ar­res­ted in 1953 along with two oth­er men in a parked car in Pas­adena, Cal­if.)

King had kept Rustin at a dis­tance un­der pres­sure from oth­er black lead­ers. The late Rep. Adam Clayton Pow­ell Jr. of Har­lem had forced Rustin off of the board of the South­ern Chris­ti­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence and Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, didn’t want Rustin run­ning the 1963 march.

But Rustin’s ment­or, A. Philip Ran­dolph, head of the Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Port­ers, in­sisted. It was Ran­dolph’s idea to have a March on Wash­ing­ton in 1941 to protest se­greg­a­tion — and it was called off only when Pres­id­ent Roosevelt de­seg­reg­ated the de­fense in­dustry. So when the idea sur­faced of a March on Wash­ing­ton in 1963, to de­mand justice on the 100th an­niversary of the end of slavery, Ran­dolph’s word coun­ted above all oth­ers. And it was Rustin who did much of the speak­ing that Au­gust day.

Sen. Strom Thur­mond de­nounced Rustin as a com­mun­ist and ho­mo­sexu­al in a floor state­ment, but the press didn’t pick it up. Rustin died in 1987 and Pres­id­ent Obama will present him, posthum­ously, with the Medal of Free­dom.

Auto­ma­tion and Labor Were a Factor.

It’s of­ten for­got­ten that the March on Wash­ing­ton was a march for free­dom and jobs. The un­em­ploy­ment rate that Au­gust was 5.4 per­cent, low by today’s stand­ards but high­er than it had been earli­er in the ‘60s; then, as now, black un­em­ploy­ment re­mained much high­er than the na­tion­al in­dex.

Many of the speak­ers at the March on Wash­ing­ton in­veighed against “auto­ma­tion” dis­pla­cing work­ers — a har­binger of today’s out­sourcing. But des­pite the jobs fo­cus, or­gan­ized labor was di­vided. Wal­ter Re­uth­er, the head of the United Auto Work­ers, was one of the of­fi­cial lead­ers of the march, and he led his own rally in Michigan earli­er that sum­mer.

But des­pite UAW en­thu­si­asm — and Ran­dolph was, of course, also a uni­on lead­er — the AFL-CIO was AWOL. George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, didn’t sup­port the march, and the AFL-CIO’s of­fices were shuttered that day. The march­ers called for nondis­crim­in­a­tion not only in pub­lic fa­cil­it­ies like res­taur­ants but also in uni­ons, and many of those rep­res­en­ted by the AFL-CIO, es­pe­cially the build­ing trades, shut out blacks.

Wo­men Had a Sep­ar­ate March.

There was just one of­fi­cial wo­man speak­er at the March on Wash­ing­ton. There were wo­men sing­ers, in­clud­ing Mari­an An­der­son, who had been fam­ously blocked from speak­ing be­fore the Daugh­ters of the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion in 1939 and was in­vited to speak at the Lin­coln Me­mori­al by Elean­or Roosevelt.

But only one wo­man was in­vited to speak at the march, and that was Medgar Evers‘ wid­ow, Myrlie. She wasn’t able to come, so an­oth­er move­ment or­gan­izer, Daisy Lee Bates, spoke 142 words.

There was a sep­ar­ate march on In­de­pend­ence Av­en­ue for wo­men in the move­ment that in­cluded Dorothy Height, the late lead­er of the Coun­cil of Negro Wo­men.

John Lewis Re­wrote His Speech.

Rep. John Lewis of Geor­gia, the civil-rights vet­er­an, will be every­where dur­ing the an­niversary, an eld­er states­man of the move­ment.

In Au­gust 1963, Lewis was head of the Stu­dent Non­vi­ol­ent Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mit­tee and one of the lead­ers of the march sched­uled to speak that day. But the night be­fore the rally, oth­er lead­ers caught a glimpse of his re­marks. The first ver­sion of his speech in­censed many of the oth­er lead­ers of the march, in­clud­ing UAW’s Re­uth­er, who thought it would back­fire on the move­ment by ali­en­at­ing al­lies and giv­ing en­emies a lot to work with.

Lewis, in his ori­gin­al text, said that Pres­id­ent Kennedy’s civil-rights plan was “too little, too late” and it called for the civil- rights work­ers to march through Dixie “like Sher­man.” Would Lewis’s un­spoken words have changed the day? Would King’s?

We’ll nev­er know.

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