First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. II, No. 9, September 1963
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Two hundred thousand human beings – black and white, men and women, young and old – converging on the nation’s capital from all our states to demand civil rights and jobs could have been something to shake our present government to its rotting roots. Two hundred thousand people sitting-in in Congress or in front of the White House or blocking Washington traffic could have forced the Administration to do something quick about equality.
But the August 28 March on Washington did not reach that point. It was a start, but it did not “get out of hand.”
In fact, it stayed well in hand – in hands of those who controlled it, the middle class Negro leadership (Wilkins, King, Young, etc.) and the white trade union bureaucrats like Reuther. It was a pleasant Sunday-afternoon-type March – cheerful, sunny, and full of the picnic spirit as people strolled along the broad Washington Avenues with an occasional song or chant, or sat along the shallow reflection pool between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials and dipped their hot feet in the water.
The speeches, on the whole, were mild and full of platitudes, and the crowd, on the whole, was mild and full of good will. “It was tame,” was the general feeling, going home on the train.
And yet, something happened at the August 28 March on Washington – something not reported as such in the papers, but something which will have a lasting effect on the future of the Freedom struggle here.
What happened was that the leaders – or misleaders – of the March, and the politicians they play ball with (the Wagners and Kennedys), began to panic as the March began to grow. They wanted a big demonstration, sure, but they wanted it their way – to support Kennedy, not to oppose him. They wanted hundreds of thousands of people, sure, but they wanted them peaceful and not embarrassing to the government.
And so they panicked. And they organized thousands of special “Marshals” to aid the police in keeping order, just in case something should get out of hand. And when President Kennedy wasn’t satisfied with that, he deputized thousands of National Guardsmen to aid the Marshals to aid the police in keeping order. And just in case that didn’t work, Jumping Jack ordered thousands of crack paratroopers to stand by to aid the National Guardsmen to aid the Marshal s to aid the police in keeping order.
And every five feet or so along the line of march stood a “Marshal” and a Washington cop and a National Guardsman. Just in case. The “Marshals” – organized by Randolph and Wilkins and Co. – were especially vigilant about not allowing any unauthorized signs in the march. At one point an alarm was sounded at the Headquarters Tent that some of the marchers were writing on the back of the signs they were carrying. The written message was, “There’s a Party tonight at.. .” The Marshals were instructed to take those signs out of the line of march. (At least one marcher eluded the Marshals with a hand-scrawled sign saying, “Wagner Go Home.”)
The high point of this panic by the March leaders was displayed in their cutting and emasculation of the speech by John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. According to reports in the press, Lewis had intended to say, “We will not wait for the Justice Department, nor the Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory.” He also reportedly wanted to call Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill “worthless” The “leaders” of the March – reportedly Randolph, King and Reuther – would not permit these radical statements, and simply cut Lewis’ speech.
There they were, the liberal leaders, black and white, sitting up high in complete control of a peaceful March of 200,000 American citizens – there they were with the endorsement of Cardinal Spellman, President Kennedy, yes, and even Barry Goldwater, and what did they do? They trembled. “Please, lord, don’t let this thing get out of hand.”
Well, it didn’t get out of hand. But there must have been thousands among the marchers who wished just for a little out-of-handness. The rumors of possible unauthorized sit-ins or demonstrations by one group or another kept up until the day of the march, and some even circulated at the march itself.
Several small groups of freedom fighters from the South – usually led by SNCC forces – came with chants and songs like marching islands of militancy in a sea of strollers. But on the whole, the marchers came from the big, northern cities and did not reflect the militant young southern Negroes.
Only when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke was there a sudden and unanimous spurt of spirit. The picnic was suddenly over. The leader – the only black leader in America who has such national and international prestige –the Baptist minister leader – was talking. And King spoke with eloquence for which he is famous. And the crowd cheered to his vision (“I have a dream...”) of a better world.
It was in that moment that one could see the potential of 200,000 people united in one fight. King, unfortunately, did not say anything about how his dream was going to become reality –except to say that violence is a bad thing – and King, of course, is part of the middle class Negro leadership which made the deal not to sit-in in Congress (see PL, July-August, 1963).
Nonetheless, for the vast majority of Negroes at the March and watching it, King’s speech climaxed a successful demonstration. It was, after all, a huge crowd. It was eminently respectable – even the President liked it. And it was led – mostly – by Negroes. And nothing like that had ever happened before. It was a tremendous show of forces if not of force, and no matter what Kennedy said, the demonstrations were not going to end on August 28.
The murmurings of dissatisfaction are growing. Those who were pleased with the March will want to know why Kennedy doesn’t do something now about Plaquemine, Louisiana, where Negroes are fighting back with rocks (despite CORE’s non-violence policy). They will be shocked by the federal government’s indictment of freedom fighters in Macon, Georgia. They will wonder why Reuther won’t act against continuing segregation in the AFL-CIO. And above all, many of them will begin to see more clearly the hypocrisy of Kennedy’s administration which appoints segregationist judges and “pays for thousands of southern segregated schools ... and hundreds of white-only hospitals” (PL, July-August, 1963).
A few tentative conclusions might be drawn from the March:
1. The Negro Freedom movement in this country now has the support of millions, including white people, who support the broad goals of equality and social justice.
2. King and the middle class Negro leaders still command the respect and, in some cases, support of the majority of these millions.
3. The more militant sections of the integration movement – especially in the South–pose a growing threat to these middle class leaders, especially where the new, young forces expose and attack the hypocrisy of Kennedy.
4. The organization which most represents these militant forces today is SNCC, although several local CORE chapters around the country, a few isolated NAACP groups, and a number of independent groups are also in the forefront. This clearly explains why the Kennedy boys have indicted the SNCC people in Macon.
It may also be of interest to our readers to know that, after the March, Reuther reneged on a promise to help finance a SNCC office in Washington. Reuther charged the SNCC people had shown themselves to be “irresponsible” at the March.
5. Finally, the March did not succeed in sapping the militancy of the Freedom movement, as some had hoped it would, or in bringing to a dramatic conclusion the demonstrations.
The murmurings of dissatisfaction will continue to grow as Wagner and Reuther and Wilkins continue to trail after Kennedy and Kennedy continues to do nothing to provide jobs. (Even in Kennedy’s most hopeful dreams he envisions reducing unemployment from 5-1/2% to 5% in 2-1/2 years – what a vision!) The murmurings will grow. Washington’s fear of the masses – shown so clearly at the March – is not without reason.