07/23/2013

Putting the 1963 March on Washington in broader context

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Rep. John Lewis' moving description, during a TEACH general session, of his role in the civil rights movement led right into a discussion by historians of how the 1963 March on Washington has been oversimplified, and the great possibilities the march holds for teaching about the civil rights movement in a broader context.

In popular thought, the March on Washington is the march of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and its message is that of King's dream. That portrayal erases the role played by African-American labor activists in making the march a reality on the one hand, and obscures the march's economic agenda, on the other, says Leo Casey, executive director of the Shanker Institute, which has sponsored the creation of teaching materials to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march.

In the years after 1963, King had "speaker's remorse about the Dream speech," said David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross, a biography of King. Garrow, research professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, says King did not want to be remembered by the emotion of one speech, nor have the passage of a Civil Rights Act be viewed as a final end.

William P. Jones, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has just completed a history of the march that is to be published in September. He noted that "the primary goal of the march was not to assert the moral value of racial equality. Two months earlier, President John F. Kennedy had established that when he introduced Civil Rights Act legislation. The goal was to convince Congress and the White House that strong federal action was necessary—to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education decision and to do other essential things, such as assuring that everybody had access to a well-paying job."

The historians had a lot to say about two fascinating organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Eric Arnesen is a professor of history at George Washington University and a scholar of African-American labor history. He is working on a biography of Randolph.

The labor movement's track record on race "was not all that great," he said. "Yet Randolph used his position as a union president and an AFL-CIO vice president to hammer home what was wrong. There was no contradiction between the battle for civil rights and the battle for labor rights."

"It's very important to understand that this union has a special relationship to the march," reminded Casey. "Many who have been active and prominent in the AFT were involved in organizing the march, and Randolph and Rustin were the most loyal friends the union ever had." Present at the TEACH presentation, in fact, were two organizers, Rachelle Horowitz, former AFT political director, and Norman Hill, longtime director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

To download teaching materials, go to www.shankerinstitute.org/50thanniversary.

[Barbara McKenna]