Living History

Two Civil Rights Activists Remember the March on Washington

There is little reason to believe that late August was any kinder a thousand years ago in the swampy wilderness that hugged a bulging curve of the Potomac River than it was in the early years of the seventh decade of the 20th century. By 1963, the swamps were long gone. So were the area's original inhabitants, members of Native American tribes, who likely greeted whites as they first made their way into the region in the early 17th century.

In 1963, Washington, DC—at least the parts the tourists saw—was at once majestically American as the nation's capital and yet very much European in its presentation, in its penchant for the monumental. It was dressed in tons of limestone, granite, and marble, in fluted Grecian columns, in pedestals and porticoes, and accented with manicured Baroque landscapes, vistas common to London and Paris. The actual design of the District of Columbia, which in 1790 was deemed by its namesake to be the "federal city," was principally the work of a French-born American, Pierre Charles L'Enfant.

The original vision called for broad, long avenues radiating from the Capitol building. One of those "grand" avenues never materialized and instead evolved, largely as a consequence of neglect, into a long, grassy front yard. It became the National Mall, the people's parade grounds for pageantry and protests, for presidential inaugurations, rallies, and celebrations.

NORMAN HILL: On the cool, early morning of August 28, 1963, I, at age 30, walked those grounds with my 51-year-old mentor, Bayard Rustin. There we were, two men appearing—at least on the outside—calm and in control, casually strolling along the edge of the reflecting pool in the far western end of the Mall. We were not far from the stony glare of Abraham Lincoln seated stiffly in his memorial. Except for a gaggle of news reporters and photographers, we were practically alone. I was not certain what Rustin was feeling, although I learned later that he was terrified. I was more than a little concerned.

This was the day for what we hoped would be the great Washington march. While I, the staff coordinator of the march, and most of its other planners and organizers, publicly avoided any predictions of numbers, we all not-so-secretly hoped that the march would bring tens upon tens of thousands of people streaming into this part of the Mall. We wanted it to be big.

My wife, Velma, then 24, was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality. We knew that reputations were at stake, perhaps even the future of the civil rights movement and its alliance with labor.

In planning for the march, one of the last major elements we saw lock into place was organized labor. A. Philip Randolph, the architect of the march, so badly wanted the trade union movement in the initial coalition. Labor came in late, but then it came in very strong.

In 1963, Velma and I understood that in a very real sense there were always, at least historically, two labor movements. This was symbolized by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which merged in 1955 to become a federation of unions, the AFL-CIO. Today, it represents more than 12 million members, including teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, miners, plumbers, painters, firefighters, public workers, and more.

Before the merger, the CIO represented the progressive wing of the labor movement, the more industrial part of the labor movement—autoworkers and steel workers, for instance. On the other hand, the AFL's members were more craftspeople and seemed more conservative; sometimes you really had to work hard to bring them along to support progressive issues and causes.

In 1963, George Meany, who had fought to create the AFL-CIO, was still its first and only president. Walter Reuther, the president of the CIO at the time of the merger, was made one of many vice presidents in the combined federation. He was also the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) from 1946 to his death in 1970, and he drew additional clout from his position as the president of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department.

After the merger in 1955, Reuther, on more than one occasion, had disagreed with Meany on matters that came before the AFL-CIO's governing executive council. I used to tell Velma how I would hear Reuther continually say, even after the merger, "Well, if Meany doesn't like it, or doesn't go along, or doesn't support this, I'm going to do it anyway." That was Walter Reuther.

Randolph appealed to Meany, a tough New Yorker who was born into the labor movement, to join the coalition backing the march. But Meany was cool to the idea and said no. He thought the march would draw too many people to Washington. He doubted that we could control the crowds, keeping everything peaceful and under control. He said that the last thing he wanted to be associated with was a march that would embarrass the federation he had worked so hard to create.

In attempting to line up major labor support, Randolph made one tactical mistake: he reached out to Reuther about the march before he spoke about it with Meany. Reuther didn't wait for Meany to move. He said right away that he was on board, adding that "I'm going to support the march no matter what Meany says or does."

In reaction, Meany said, "Well, I'm going to show Reuther who actually runs the AFL-CIO." Before we fully realized it, the Washington march had become a political football; a personal, political, and ideological tug of war.

Thereafter, Meany's earlier reservations about the march quickly hardened to the point where the AFL-CIO would not endorse the march. But several individual unions, mainly industrial unions, 17 or so, including the UAW, did openly support and later participate in the march. Reuther was very, very involved.

VELMA MURPHY HILL: Some march organizers around Randolph were very upset with Meany. But Norman and I never heard Randolph say a bad word about Meany—about anybody, as a matter of fact. After the march and its stunning success, Meany would come around in ways that seemed unimaginable in the months leading up to the march.

Norman and I knew it was special, but it really didn't dawn on us until it happened just how special that day really was. It was a Wednesday that felt like a Sunday. We understood what the march meant in terms of Randolph's hopes for it—the melding of jobs, labor, a national minimum wage of no less than $2 an hour, with all this stuff going on in the South, people standing up and getting hurt, the civil rights legislation taking shape, thousands of voices chanting, "Pass the BILL. Pass the BILL. Pass the BILL."

There was this air of real excitement. People were saying hello to people they didn't know. People were shaking hands, and people were looking for people they knew. It was just wonderful. We were trying to figure out how many different unions were there. So many people wore buttons and paper hats that bore the names of their unions, like the UAW or the American Federation of Teachers, in big, bold letters.

NORMAN: There is no doubt that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a resounding success, despite the fact no march, no matter how massive, could secure either one of these goals. We saw the march as an important start, a declaration of action. Randolph and Rustin certainly felt that the event had exceeded even their considerably high expectations. But in the wake of the march, there was a feeling that the real work was about to begin.

Within an hour of the last speech of the day, leaders from the march were ushered into the Cabinet Room. There, they met President John F. Kennedy, flanked by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy, like millions across America, had watched the march live on television. He was duly impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech, even famously greeting him with "I have a dream" and a kind of "good-job" nod.

And while Velma and I learned that the meeting was cordial, we know Randolph urged Kennedy to press more vigorously to get the civil rights bill through Congress. But Kennedy, facing reelection pressures, soon began supporting a more limited civil rights bill, thinking perhaps that it could find support among powerful elements in Congress that opposed it. By October, a compromise bill was hammered out with House leaders. This bill watered down the public accommodation clause, exempting retail stores and personal services. Voting rights protections would only apply to federal elections. And the labor provisions, like a Fair Employment Practices Committee, were removed and the proposed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission weakened.

That bill passed the Judiciary Committee on November 20. Two days later Kennedy was dead.

But strengthened by the march, some of the bill's supporters continued to lobby for a stronger bill. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of organizations to protect civil and human rights in the United States, had become the main lobbying body pushing for an effective bill. It felt that it was extremely important, for instance, to have civil rights legislation that included a ban on employment discrimination because that was such an essential, important area of life. The Kennedys, both the president and the attorney general, argued against including that ban because they said they would never be able to get the legislation through Congress and overcome a southern filibuster.

The Leadership Conference—founded in 1950 by Randolph; Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council—would not accept this setback. Its leadership, which included the Washington director of the NAACP, Clarence Mitchell Jr.—sometimes known as the 101st senator—went to George Meany. While Meany had refused to endorse the march, the Leadership Conference asked him to help get an amendment to the weakened civil rights legislation that would outlaw employment discrimination.

Meany agreed to do that. He also went before Congress and testified that he and the AFL-CIO supported a civil rights bill that included the ban. He went further, saying that the amendment should not only include employers and employment agencies, but unions as well. He said that there was a need for an "extra stick" to clean up the House of Labor.

As a result, Title VII—the section that bans employment discrimination—was added to the civil rights legislation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would enforce the ban.

I think the success of the march had something to do with Meany's evolution. It likely influenced him to belatedly offer his endorsement to one of the march's central demands.

On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It was a landmark piece of legislation. The act banned major forms of discrimination against blacks and women. It set out to end unequal application of voter registration requirements. And it prohibited racial segregation in schools, the workplace, and facilities that served the general public. Over the years, the federal government's capacity to enforce the act grew increasingly stronger.

VELMA: But Norman and I think the Washington march could have done so much more for the cause of women.

It bothers me to this day that not a single woman spoke at the podium during the march. Its leadership had a separate program, a tribute to black women in the civil rights movement, earlier that day. Yes, their names were called: Daisy Bates, Diane Nash Bevel, Mrs. Medgar Evers, Mrs. Herbert Lee, Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson—and they each got some applause. But this was done before the march really got started. I mean, come on.

At that time, the question of women, women's liberation, was not a big question among most of us. But listen, it would not have in any way taken anything from the march to expand the Big 10 to the Big 11 to include a woman. Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997 and a lifelong civil rights activist, could have spoken. She represented a major organization just like the men who spoke that day. A number of other women pushed to have women among major speakers that day. But in the end, all of those calls were rejected or simply not acted upon.

NORMAN: I believe Velma is right. I think that was the one major failing of the march. It could have been done.

VELMA: But we do not believe that this failure at all tarnishes the overall brilliance of the march's legacy. So much of what was achieved that day is still shaping the best of this nation's possibilities. It has proven, all these decades later, to be precisely what Randolph described it to be, a "massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom." President Johnson's War on Poverty, while unfortunately short-lived under the monstrous weight of the Vietnam War, had deep roots in the vision and spirit of the march.

At the close of that day, Norman and I looked at each other, and we knew that the Washington march had crystallized all we had been taught by Randolph and Rustin—the power of coalition politics; the importance of direct, nonviolent action; and the relevance of combining the struggles for economic justice and racial equality.

Norman Hill was the staff coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Murphy Hill is a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and the former civil and human rights and international affairs director of the Service Employees International Union. This excerpt from their upcoming memoir, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, has been adapted for purposes of this article.

Reprinted from American Educator, Fall 2013

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American Educator, Fall 2013