“Timid supplication for justice will not solve the problem. We have got to confront the power structure massively.” —Martin Luther King Jr. 
“If all the discriminatory laws in the United States were immediately repealed, race would still remain as one of the most pressing moral and political problems in the nation. . . . There would still be a vast, silent, automatic system directed against men and women of color.” —Michael Harrington, The Other America  (1962)
This Historic March Brought to You by Socialists and Labor Unions
Much praise and honor has been given in recent days, and rightly so, to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have a Dream” address at the historic 1963 March on Washington—including a speech  yesterday by the president of the United States at the Lincoln Memorial. The nation’s first African American president spoke at the same spot where hundreds of thousands gathered on a hot Wednesday in August 1963 to hear not only the great civil rights leader but also speeches by James Farmer of CORE, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Walter Reuther of the UAW and AFL-CIO, and John Lewis of SNCC, and music by the great Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. (It was Roy Wilkins’s sad duty to announce that the legendary black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868, had died just the previous evening in Ghana.)
On this 50th anniversary of the great march we would like to draw attention to its organizational origins and to its practical aims—namely, jobs and improvement of economic conditions. The following account is indebted to well-researched articles published this week by Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect (“The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington” ) and by John Nichols in The Nation (“ ‘Timid Supplication for Justice Will Not Solve the Problem’ ” ), among other sources.
The march on Washington had been building for decades. A mobilization of some 100,000 almost took place in 1941, then again in 1948. Each time, the organizer was invited to the White House, where he won concessions from the president and called off the planned march. By 1963, despite John F. Kennedy’s invitation to the White House, there was no way it was not going to happen.
The man who introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd of some 250,000 gathered before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, was the formidable organizer A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979, pictured below), the founder and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the first two black vice presidents of the AFL-CIO. Randolph is rightly regarded as not only the father but also the grandfather of the March on Washington. He was the man with the gravitas. Murray Kempton, who covered the March for The New Republic , wrote that in the civil rights movement, where not all the leaders got along, Randolph embraced everyone. (After a meeting with Malcolm X, Randolph helped the younger man on with his coat and saw him to the door. In Kempton’s account, Malcolm later said that all Negro leaders are confused, but that Randolph is less confused than any of them.)
“The reconstruction program for the Negro must involve the introduction of the new social order—a democratic order in which human rights are recognized above property rights.” —A. Philip Randolph (1919)
Meyerson writes :
As the nation began to gear up for World War II, [Randolph] saw an opportunity to advance the legal and economic status of blacks. By late 1940, the nation’s burgeoning aircraft factories were employing fully 100,000 workers, but only 300 of them were black. President Roosevelt, Randolph realized, could remedy this situation by an executive order, and so, in January of 1941, he conceived the idea of a march on Washington. Fully 100,000 blacks would come to Washington, he said, for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. They would demand the desegregation of both defense work and the armed forces themselves, and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce the desegregation of the defense industry. “We loyal Negro-American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country,” Randolph proclaimed.
When Franklin Roosevelt tried to charm and persuade Randolph to call off a march on Washington of some 100,000 Negroes planned for the summer of 1941, the labor leader refused to back down. Instead, FDR caved in and signed an executive order desegregating factories working on defense contracts—thus enabling African Americans, too, to share in the work and wages of defense work—and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to ensure compliance.
Randolph threatened a similar march after World War II to push President Harry Truman to desegregate the military. Truman invited Randolph to the White House to try to talk him out the march idea, but Randolph held firm. Desegregate, or we’re coming to Washington. Truman signed  an executive order desegregating the U.S. military in July 1948.
Some fifteen years later, the organizing genius was Bayard Rustin  (right), who had passed through the Communist Party in the 1930s before shifting to the Socialist Party. He and fellow socialist James Farmer cofounded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and during World War II he was imprisoned at Leavenworth for protesting the segregation of the U.S. armed forces. He traveled to India to study tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience with followers of Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement. In the mid 1950s Rustin worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize a nationwide network of support for the Montgomery bus boycott that began in 1955 following the arrest of Rosa Parks.
100 Years after the Proclamation, an “Emancipation March for Jobs”
In 1961, as chair of the Negro American Labor Council, Randolph asked Rustin to help formulate a plan to improve the economic conditions of urban black workers. They began developing plans for a national demonstration. Rustin, with Tom Kahn and Norman Hill, wrote a paper calling for an “Emancipation March for Jobs,” envisioning a mobilization of some 100,000 demonstrators converging on Washington. So, the original focus of the 1963 march on Washington was on the economic plight of northern urban black workers (or would-be workers).
The marchers’ demands would focus on legislation banning racial discrimination in employment and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce it (Roosevelt’s FEPC order had expired at the end of World War II), a doubling of the minimum wage, and a federal commitment to job creation.
Meanwhile, events in the South began to intensify as King and the SCLC pursued a nonviolent but persistent campaign  to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. When national television audiences saw the municipal fire hoses and police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor’s German shepherds loosed on peaceful, well-dressed, well-behaved protesters, many of them small children, the public was shocked by the brutality. Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama governor George Wallace was making his infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door , wrangling with the U.S. Justice Department, defying Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, obstinately blocking the admission of two qualified black students to the University of Alabama.
On the night of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a televised address  to the nation to announce that he was sending a civil rights bill to Congress that focused on public facilities. “I am . . . asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” (In a profile of A. Philip Randolph for The New Republic in June 1963, Murray Kempton wrote  that the labor leader’s remark to Kennedy after the address “was at once a stately compliment and a measured reminder: ‘It was a magnificent speech, but it was, unfortunately, made rather late.’ ”) That same night, in Jackson, Mississippi, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers  was shot dead in his own driveway after returning home from a meeting at a church.
Thus the economic agenda of the march on Washington was joined to the civil rights movement. King saw both as inextricable, indivisible. Meyerson writes , “For Rustin and Randolph, as for King [and others] . . . the challenge confronting African Americans was always two-fold: to tear down the legal edifice of segregation that imperiled and degraded Southern blacks, and to remake the American economy into a more egalitarian social democracy under which—and only under which—black Americans could actually prosper.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was an early sponsor of the march, along with the Negro American Labor Council, of which Randolph was chair. The NAACP and the Urban League at first were cool to the idea of a mass mobilization; they thought energies would be better spent lobbying members of Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill.
Kennedy invited Randolph and other organizers to the White House in an effort to dissuade them from going forward with the march. “Some of these people are looking for an excuse to be against us; and I don’t want to give any of them a chance to say, ‘Yes, I’m for the bill, but I am damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.’ ” Murray Kempton wrote , “Philip Randolph answered that he was afraid the choice was no longer whether Negroes came to Washington or not. ‘The choice, Mr. President, is between a controlled and non-violent demonstration and an uncontrolled and violent one.’ ”
The Freedom Budget and the Poor People’s Campaign
The world well knows what Martin Luther King Jr. said that day, and his great voice still resounds from the Lincoln Memorial, from mountaintop to mountaintop, through the cities and farms and forests and fields, for all those who have ears to hear.
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
What is not so well known is the economic agenda that motivated the organizers and marchers and motivates us still in this land of stark and growing inequalities. John Nichols explains  that Randolph, Rustin, and King collaborated to develop a “Freedom Budget ” that called for:
- 1. The abolition of poverty.
- 2. Guaranteed full employment.
- 3. Full production and high economic growth.
- 4. Adequate minimum wages.
- 5. Farm income parity.
- 6. Guaranteed incomes for all unable to work.
- 7. A decent home for every American family.
- 8. Modern health services for all.
- 9. Full educational opportunity for all.
- 10. Updated (and expanded) Social Security and welfare programs.
- 11. Equitable tax and money policies.
Vauhini Vara writes in a blog piece for The New Yorker titled “Race and Poverty, Fifty Years after the March ”:
Back in 1963, the Washington marchers made these four economic demands: a higher federal minimum wage, a law barring discrimination by employers, a massive job-training program, and an increase in the areas of employment covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938—the law that established standards such as overtime pay. The policy changes brought about by the protesters’ demands, and the civil-rights movement at large, were significant, if not as numerous as King and his allies sought. In January of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the policies that became known as the War on Poverty; that July, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through the sixties and into the seventies, the government started job-training programs and deliberately hired more black people into government jobs, among other measures.
Where Do We Go from Here?
To the very end, Martin Luther King Jr. held fast to his commitment to social justice combined with economic opportunity: he was working on the Poor People’s Campaign  and had come to Memphis to show support for the sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The following remarks are excerpts from the speech “Where Do We Go from Here?”, King’s last address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to its members, in Atlanta, on August 16, 1967. (See also King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? )
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. . . . Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. . . .
. . . our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.
. . . John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth. . . .
. . . as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” . . . the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. . . . We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. . . .
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrow. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
For more about how socialists and labor unions organized the March on Washington, we recommend the fine, long piece that Harold Meyerson wrote for The American Prospect , along with John Nichols’s account in The Nation . For even more detail, see John Nichols’s The “S” Word : A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism, particularly the chapter “For Jobs and Freedom: The ‘Militant Radical’ Who Dared to Dream of a March on Washington.”
Read “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom ” by Mark Engler in The Nation
Murray Kempton’s account  of the March on Washington for The New Republic, August 1963