Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) civil rights worker, Carthage, Mississippi, 1965
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is a milestone and I want to thank the people who worked on this forum and the other speakers for bringing us all together. It is important to remember where we’ve been, not to reminisce but to organize, to put the past to use for the present so we can win the jobs and justice which have yet to be achieved in five long decades.
I’m going to talk about the march itself, some of the issues and conflicts surrounding it, and what lessons we can draw. First, I want to talk about how it came about, then who didn’t speak and who did, but had their speech edited, and as I said the lessons.
In 1963 I was going to a small work college outside Ashville, North Carolina. We had our own civil rights struggles that year, but none of us went to the March on Washington. I watched it on TV. Two years later, I went to Mississippi to work for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in Carthage, a rural county seat. When you are part of a movement like that you have a bird’s eye view of history, but it takes a lot of reading in the years afterward to understand the scope of what you were involved in. That’s one reason I like being asked to speak. I get out my books and I learn some more about the movement and the country’s history.
The background to the march
I’ve heard people call the March on Washington “King’s march.” But this wasn’t Martin Luther King’s march, though he supported it. It wasn’t even A. Phillip Randolph’s march, though he’s the one who told President Kennedy, a few months before the march, that it would take place in DC regardless of whether Kennedy approved or not (he didn’t). It wasn’t even Baynard Rustin’s march, though he organized it, and wrote to Randolph in January of 1963, saying now’s the time. We’ve got to move.
The march didn’t belong to any of these men—it was the creation of Black trade unionists that formed the Negro American Labor Council in 1960, three years before the march. The Council was the forerunner of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. It was composed of union leaders like Randolph and rank and filers, and at its height had 10,000 members. Its purpose was to fight to make labor unions live up to the civil rights program that the AFL-CIO adopted when the two labor organizations (AFL and CIO) merged in 1955.
The AFL-CIO had promised to fight segregation and job discrimination in all affiliated union locals. This could have launched a Black/labor coalition to fight racism in the unions and across the country. What ensued instead were five long years of compromise, appeasement and abstention by the leadership on the issue of racial equality.
So Black trade unionists decided to form an autonomous organization to work within the AFL-CIO to end the lockout of Blacks from whole international unions and from apprenticeship and training programs, and to end racist job discrimination.
The AFL-CIO leadership was livid. Arch-racist George Meany labeled them (stop me if you’ve heard this before) “divisive.” When Randolph called once again in May 1960 for the elimination of segregated locals, he was censured by the AFL-CIO Executive Board.
So, it’s not surprising that the Executive Board refused to endorse the March on Washington, although some unions—like UAW and 1199—supported it on their own. It is estimated that 40,000 union members took part; 200-300,000 marched and 75% to 80% were Black.
U.S. workers have always been divided along lines of race, gender, immigration status and privilege. These divisions persist today: 1st between the top echelons of the union leadership and the rank and file; 2nd between the relatively privileged workers and the super-exploited ones who are primarily women, people of color (including immigrants) and young people. There have been advances and setbacks in the last 50 years, but historic opportunities were missed in 1963 that laid the basis for the setbacks.
The civil rights era could have been the moment when labor and the Black freedom movement came together to fight job discrimination and launch an all-out war against anti-unionism in the South. But the bureaucratic, deeply racist and anti-communist AFL-CIO leadership betrayed the labor movement’s slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” and missed the boat. During the height of the civil rights movement, the majority of white workers refused to see how their on-the-job struggle was tied directly to the fight for Blacks to achieve not only jobs and better working conditions, but full civil rights. The union tops did not lead toward social justice by example. National labor recognition came to the civil rights movement only after great pressure and public exposure.
The price we pay today is that the South is the home of run-away shops, super-exploited workers, vicious anti-unionism, anti-immigrant legislation out of a fascist play book, voter intimidation, chain gangs, etc. Need I say more? Oh yeah, anti-abortion legislation and pro-life fanatics. The reactionary, racist, sexist forces in the South just switched parties from the Democrats to the Republicans in the last fifty years.
Who didn’t speak at the 1963 March on Washington
None of the official speakers at the March on Washington were women. There were singers and performers, but none of the tough women organizers like Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State, who with an army of women and students had launched the Montgomery boycott and kept it going for a year. Not the Black women leaders of SNCC like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Not Rosa Parks. It was all men even though women were carrying the movement on their shoulders, filling the pews at church rallies and the voter registration offices, feeding and housing young civil rights workers. When I was in Mississippi some of the young women who worked with SNCC were teenagers. They were brave as they could be, just like their mothers and grandmothers. But none of them were on the podium in Washington, D.C. on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The sexism of the male leadership weakened the civil rights movement and conservatized it, just as the anti-communism and racism of the predominantly white labor movement undercut class consciousness and weakened the entire workers’ movement for social and economic justice and political power.
But “Freedom Now!” is a very contagious idea and ultimately, telling women to step back from their history-making leadership in the civil rights movement so that men could step forward—as was done in SNCC and elsewhere—ultimately gave birth to another movement of the oppressed—the feminist movement. But the civil rights movement stalled when women were pushed out of leadership.
The AFL-CIO tops had the same response to women’s demands for an end to job discrimination as they had to the civil rights movement. And so women had to batter down the walls of privilege that protected the “good jobs” in the male dominated trades and demand that labor organize the unorganized—namely ourselves.
Whose speech was edited and why
The March on Washington was not a love-in for the Kennedy administration. The Kennedy brothers had a lousy record on civil rights. Kennedy only supported sit-ins if they were “peaceful and legal.” That was impossible! He would support an anti-bombing bill in Congress, only if labor was specifically named as a potential violator. While people who were trying to register to vote in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia were being beaten and killed, President Kennedy had no plans to put before congress civil rights legislation. He didn’t want to anger the lily-white Democratic power structure in the South. His policy was one of appeasement.
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, had appointed a corporate, anti-trust lawyer to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. His name was Burke Marshall, and he faithfully carried out the Kennedy administration policy of claiming that the Justice Department had no power to stop the attacks on civil rights workers. FBI agents were to watch, and not intervene in any of the murder investigations, beatings, jailings, bombings or torture that were taking place in the Deep South. Callers from jails, dark Mississippi roads and bombed out churches—people whose lives were in danger—were told a standard answer by the FBI: “the attack does not indicate any violation of federal law.” President Kennedy had no trouble ordering steel companies not to raise prices, and threatened to call their execs before federal grand juries when they protested. Why not white terrorists? Kennedy acted like he was going to get a police state to voluntarily do good, just so he did not upset his political coalition.
Finally, in June of 1963, after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, Kennedy was moved to action. He announced he would propose a civil rights bill but without provisions to increase criminal penalties vs. mob violence. An amendment was put forward in Congress to add this, but Bobby testified against it and it died.
None of the big six civil rights leaders of the major civil rights organizations were happy with President Kennedy, but they were muted in their criticism, fearing they would lose their moderate liberal allies. They emphasized optimism in their speeches at the March on Washington and offered muted threats. The SNCC speaker, 23-year-old John L. Lewis, had prepared a speech, collectively edited by his comrades. It was radical. SNCC intended to make public its: dissatisfaction with the federal government; its break with the moderate, working-within-the-system approach to civil rights; and the organization’s break with liberalism. Circulated the day before the march, it drew criticism and threats of a walk out by various forces, among them Walter Reuther, president of the auto workers union, the Archbishop of Washington D.C., Burke Marshall of the civil rights division and others. The words revolution and black masses offended those fearful of being called communist. Others objected to calling Kennedy’s civil rights bill ”too little, too late.” References to marching through the heart of Dixie the way Sherman did, pursuing a scorched earth policy against racists everywhere, upset others. But mainly it was the call to establish a power base outside the federal government and the self-proclaimed liberals of the Democratic Party that upset the major civil rights organizations. Lewis was pressured, at the last minute, into reworking his speech.
I want to read part of his original speech: “We are now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is a place of cheap political leaders who base their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.” This was softened somewhat.
But what remained is powerful and as relevant today as it was in 1963:
“Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia? Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats, but by the federal government for peaceful protests. But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat attorney C.B. King and left him half-dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?
“To those how have said ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”
What lessons can we draw?
It is a law of nature and society that everything is in motion, either going forward or sliding backward. And sometimes doing both at the same time. What is clear is that in 50 years we have not won “Freedom Now!” for the oppressed people of all colors and conditions in this country. In fact, a lot of things first won by the civil rights, labor, feminist, Chicano, Native American and Asian American movements have been rolled back—affirmative action, voting rights, the right to strike, ethnic studies, money for childcare, welfare, school desegregation, even Headstart.
And still we have no national electoral party that represents working people and the poor. That’s why FSP ran a write-in campaign in the last election with Stephen Durham and Christina Lopez for President and Vice President. It’s why we support Kshama Sawant, a leader of Socialist Alternative, for Seattle City Council and took her campaign to the unions for endorsements.
The Democrats are Big Business, just like the Republicans. Pouring union money into their campaigns is throwing it down a rat hole. What we need is a national Labor Party to fight independently for what the majority needs. Without it, we are supposed to be grateful for crumbs. Nothing much has changed in this area since 1963. Obama’s immigration reform is a cruel hoax that penalizes the poorest, most vulnerable workers in this country. The Justice Department goes after Occupy demonstrators and throws them in jail if they refuse to talk to grand juries. Police departments spy on antiwar activists and the FBI sets up youngsters, mostly Black and Muslim, as supposed terrorists. Contractors get rich building a wall across our southern border. Bradley Manning is called a traitor. All the while the Big Shots who caused the Wall Street meltdown go free.
How could we get a party that would fight for the majority? We have to fight for democratic unions and demand union dues quit being used to subsidize the misnamed “lesser evil.” I belong to SEIU 775. There are no regular union meetings where the membership votes and decides policy. The staff runs the union, not the membership. The goal of SEIU is to mobilize the dues payers to get Democrats elected. Teamsters Local 174 was more democratic in 1976 when I was driving a truck for UPS and we used to have fist fights at union meetings!
We need a party that will fight to tax corporations to fund schools and huge federal, public works jobs and training programs; to take the money wasted on the military and make sure every child is fed and clothed and housed, no matter where they or their parents were born, or what language they speak; to nationalize major industries so we can bailout the workers of Detroit who have been used, abused and now abandoned; to restore affirmative action and close the wage gap between women and men.
But “Freedom Now!” cannot be won at the ballot box. For years after the Voting Rights Act passed, liberals pointed to the fact that Blacks were getting elected in Mississippi and other states in the Deep South as progress, as though that settled things. As we know now, it didn’t. The economic system stayed the same—non-union, race to the bottom capitalism. So economic and political disparity stayed the same for the vast majority.
That’s why we need to revive the civil rights movement on a higher level. It must be a democratic movement, as SNCC was in its early years, open to all who support its goals, tolerant of different views, ready to fight beside any group that is oppressed, offering a place to work together for the greater good. Otherwise this “movement” is just a backroom deal made by a handful of folks or it is a NGO accountable to a board, not to the people who organize their communities, who ARE the community. To win, a movement must be radically anti-capitalist, multi-racial, against all forms of gender discrimination and answer the argument that we have to compromise on everything so as not to embarrass….whoever—including the president of the United States.
It is important to commemorate the events of the past but I feel they should be a springboard to going beyond where we have been. To finish the fight for equality, for jobs, for Freedom Now.
We owe it to the workers picking berries at Sakuma Brothers Farm; to the next Trayvon Martin, Marissa Alexander, Bradley Manning, and Lynne Stewart; the next mother without papers deported to Mexico; or the next McDonald’s worker cheated out of her paycheck; the next latch key child whose father cannot afford childcare. We owe it them and millions more. Freedom Now!