March on Washington is a continuation, not just a commemoration

When labor and civil rights icon A. Philip Randolph kicked off the 1963 March on Washington from a stage at the Lincoln Memorial, he understood that the event was monumental—but just one piece of a continuing movement against racism and inequity. The march was “only the first wave,” he said. “When we leave, it will be to carry the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours.”

Photo of AFT members getting ready to March on Washington
AFT members get ready to March on Washington.

Sixty years later, on Aug. 26, 2023, tens of thousands of people followed that edict, returning to fight for freedom and, as the anniversary theme declares, make it “not a commemoration, but a continuation” of the movement. Among them were hundreds of AFT members.

The AFT cohort— from Washington, D.C.; Florida; Massachusetts; and New York—was welcomed over breakfast at union headquarters, where AFT President Randi Weingarten described the “proud history of labor in this march,” pointing to vintage photographs of esteemed march organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and lauding the 1963 marchers for traveling through segregated states, to a segregated capital city, to protest. “Today is a continuation not a commemoration, because there is so much left to do,” she said. “We have a huge responsibility here to actually take the arc [of the moral universe] and use our muscle to bend it to justice.”

Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, told her own story of the first march, sneaking away from Philadelphia at age 15 to ride a Greyhound bus, where the women on board took care of her with “greasy brown bags” full of ham sandwiches, fried chicken and pound cake—familiar staples for road trips when Black people could not stop for lunch at roadside eateries. When Brown arrived at the march, she saw other teenagers up in the trees near the memorial and climbed right up after them for a view of the stage.

The speeches, she said, were inspiring. “I recognized there was an obligation, not just a passion, to do what was necessary to keep the movement in my heart and in my head, to keep it going.”

Phot of civil rights organizer Norm Hill speaking at the AFT breakfast. AFT President Randi Weingarten stands on the side.
Civil rights organizer Norm Hill speaks at the AFT breakfast.

Brown then introduced one of the original march organizers: Norman Hill, age 90 and a key figure in the civil rights movement, joined Randolph, Rustin and others to form the coalition that created the 1963 event. “The march took place after the hard, dedicated, committed work of the staff and … under the brilliant, compelling organizational skill, genius and direction of Bayard Rustin,” said Hill. “We built the essential coalition of the civil rights and labor movements as a foundation for real progress.”

Voting rights, economic justice and a determination to make a difference

The anniversary march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the King family’s Drum Major Institute, featured leaders from dozens of civil and human rights organizations, elected officials and figures from the civil rights movement, united in their vision of carrying justice forward. Speaker after speaker outlined continuing inequities and injustices—invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, noting the strides civil rights leaders have made, despairing over how much more there is to be done and exhorting the crowd to get involved and take action.

Several speakers, including Ashley Sharpton, founder of the NAN Huddle for Youth, described strides made by Black people, with Black elected officials, movie directors, doctors, business people and others excelling in every field. But the work is far from over. Book bans, the restrictions on teaching African American history, and the Jan. 6 insurrection came up repeatedly. Affirmative action, voting rights and reproductive rights, attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community and gun violence were also common themes.

Inspiring words

“They want to stop Blacks from voting,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who ticked through a list of challenges, including threats against women’s autonomy and LGBTQIA+ freedom. “We are not going to take this,” said Sharpton. “We’re going to march and show thousands of us in these streets going together. They will not be able to turn back the clock.”

“Sixty years later in this great country, we’ve come a long way, but we still have some things that have to be worked out,” said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). “So we’re here today to continue our march toward a more perfect union.”

“If I could speak to my grandfather today I would say I’m sorry we still have to be here to rededicate ourselves to finishing your work and ultimately realizing your hidden dream,” said 14-year-old Yolanda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter. She listed the “triple evils” of racism, poverty and bigotry that still plague the nation, along with environmental destruction and gun violence. But she said her generation will be “defined by action,” and be “a great generation.” 

Photo of three Washington Teachers' Union members posing together at the march.
Three Washington Teachers' Union members pose together at the march.

“We need all of us to be engaged,” said her father, Martin Luther King III, drawing out the word “aaaaaall.” Yolanda’s mother, Arndrea Waters King, invoked a Langston Hughes’ poem: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” she recited, saying she keeps climbing when she thinks of the many injustices of our time. “Don’t you turn back,” the poem reads. “Don’t you set down on the steps / ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. / Don’t you fall now— / For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Speakers also had faith that things could get better. Taking courage from the landmark address that closed the program in 1963—Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—they held both truths: That civil rights are under siege, and that there is room to continue to fight to save them.

“It’s been a long but wonderful struggle, and I’m here to tell you that I don’t feel no ways tired,” said Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, United Nations ambassador and King’s confidant during the height of the civil rights movement. “We’ve come too far from where we started from.”

Photo: Randi Weingarten speaks before the March on Washington flanked by APRI President Clayola Brown (left) and an interpreter (right).
Randi Weingarten speaks before the March on Washington flanked by APRI President Clayola Brown (left) and an interpreter (right).

Just as the 1963 march had strong support from the labor community, labor unions showed up in force to the 2023 march. Weingarten spoke from the podium: “We march today because justice is still denied to too many of our kids,” she said. “We march for the promise of America. We march for public education to be the opportunity engine for all children,” she continued, listing compelling reasons to show up and fight: poverty, gun violence, voting rights and democracy. “We march because we will not be silent, because we have the courage to act, the courage of our conviction to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and freedom.”

Other labor speakers included AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders.

The stories that move us

At the AFT breakfast, Lorretta Johnson, AFT secretary-treasurer emeritus, remembers taking a bus from Baltimore to the first March on Washington, in 1963. Although she left early—the crowds were overwhelming for her then-5-year-old son—she does recall feeling “the unity of community” before she left to listen to the speeches from home. “It was so moving,” she said. People were convinced their time had come—and the march did become a catalyst for passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Photo: From left, AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson and former Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker pose together.
From left, AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson and former Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker pose together.

“We felt like we were really moving, like our lives were going to change,” said Johnson, recalling those days of early activism. “Today I’m saddened. We’re just trying to hold on to what we did back then, … to remind people of why we marched, and to try and hold onto those gains.”

As APRI’s Clayola Brown recalled that first march, she also urged us all to action. “We’ve got to stop just talking about it, and we’ve got to start doing something about it,” she said, calling for a succinct plan. Standing on the shoulders of the women she reveres most—Dorothy Height, Evelyn Lowery and Augusta Thomas—and those women who cared for her on that Greyhound bus in 1963, she said she is trying to do the same for young activists who would join her in the fight today.

She will find many AFT members eager to carry the movement forward. The United Federation of Teachers filled 11 buses with members who came in from New York, said Anthony Harmon, a UFT staff director, an AFT vice president, and president of the New York City chapter of APRI. He hopes the march will inspire the fight forward for economic justice, education equity and voting rights. “It’s important that we remember the struggle,” he said. “Our grandparents picked cotton so that we could pick presidents. We have to honor that history.”

[Virginia Myers]