The Move to Unity

Labor's Role in the March on Washington

Nearly every American and millions of people around the world are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, yet most know little about the March on Washington at which it was delivered. The tremendous eloquence and elegant simplicity of the speech meant that many, then and now, came to associate the broader goals of the demonstration with King's compelling vision of interracial harmony—a dream of a nation that would finally live up to its founders' proclamations about the "self-evident" equality of all people, in which children would be judged "by the content of their character" rather than the color of their skin, and in which citizens would "be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."

Few know that King's was the last of 10 speeches, capping more than six hours of performances by well-known musicians, appearances by politicians and movie stars, and statements of solidarity from groups across the nation and around the world—as well as an actual march. Even fewer know that it was officially called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," and that it aimed not just to end racial segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South but also to ensure that Americans of all races had access to quality education, affordable housing, and jobs that paid a living wage. We forget that King's task was to uplift the spirits of marchers after a long day in the sun and, for most, a night traveling by bus or train from as far away as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and even Los Angeles. One reporter observed that while King "ignited the crowd" with his optimistic vision of the future, the other speakers "concentrated on the struggle ahead and spoke in tough, even harsh, language." Yet those other speeches have been virtually lost to history.1

On August 28, 1963, nearly a quarter-million people descended on the nation's capital to demand "jobs and freedom." By "freedom" they meant that every American should be guaranteed access to stores, restaurants, hotels, and other "public accommodations," to "decent housing" and "adequate and integrated education," and to the right to vote. They also wanted strict enforcement of those civil rights, including the withholding of federal funds from discriminatory programs and housing developments, the reduction of congressional representation in states where citizens were denied the right to vote, and authorization of the attorney general to bring injunctive suits when "any constitutional right is violated." Some of those demands were addressed by a civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy had introduced to Congress on June 11, 1963, two months before the demonstration. Marchers wanted to pass that bill, but they believed it was far too limited. In addition to equal access to public accommodations and the right to vote, they demanded a "massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages." They wanted to raise the minimum wage to a level that would "give all Americans a decent standard of living," and to extend that standard to agricultural workers, domestic servants, and public employees, who were excluded from the federal law that created the minimum wage. For many marchers, the most important objective was the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to prevent private firms, government agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.2

King delivered the finale at the Lincoln Memorial, but the tone for the day was set in an opening address by A. Philip Randolph, the 74-year-old trade unionist who was the official leader of the March on Washington. Randolph agreed with King on the need for integration and racial equality in the South, but he linked those objectives to a broader national and interracial struggle for economic and social justice. "We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom," he told the crowd that stretched out for more than a mile before him. He declared that the civil rights movement affected "every city, every town, every village where black men are segregated, oppressed, and exploited," but insisted it was "not confined to the Negroes; nor is it confined to civil rights." It was critical to end segregation in southern stores and restaurants, the union leader insisted, "but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them." What good was an FEPC, he asked, if the rapidly expanding automation of industry was allowed to "destroy the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?" Whereas King appealed to the nation's founding principles of equality and freedom, Randolph insisted that "real freedom will require many changes in the nation's political and social philosophies and institutions." Ending housing discrimination, for example, would require Americans to reject the assumption that a homeowner's "property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin." In the civil rights revolution, he declared, "The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality."3

Randolph used language and imagery that reflected a lifetime of activism in organized labor and the Socialist Party, but his points were echoed by the younger and, for the most part, more moderate speakers who followed. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, charged that Kennedy's civil rights proposal amounted to "so moderate an approach that if it is weakened or eliminated, the remainder will be little more than sugar water." Emphasizing the need for an FEPC law, the 62-year-old former journalist stated, "We want employment, and with it we want the pride and responsibility and self-respect that goes with equal access to jobs." Walter Reuther, the 55-year-old president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, concurred that "the job question is crucial; because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs." According to the New York Times, "Harshest of all the speakers was John Lewis," the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who currently represents Georgia in the US Congress. Lewis endorsed Kennedy's civil rights bill "with great reservations," pointing out that the proposed legislation did nothing to protect African Americans from police brutality and racist violence, to uphold their right to vote in the South, or to "ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year." Urging marchers to seek alternatives to a political system corrupted by power and money, Lewis declared, "Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution."4

Tracing the roots of the March on Washington to A. Philip Randolph's demand for fair employment during the Second World War demonstrates that the civil rights movement was always closely linked to the social democratic politics of the New Deal. Randolph initiated a march on Washington in 1941, before the United States entered the war, but federal investments in weapons, equipment, transportation, and military bases had already begun to lift the nation's economy out of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to strengthen the economic recovery by directing federal spending toward the South and other particularly depressed regions, and by strengthening federal labor laws to protect workers' rights to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages and benefits. While those policies were ostensibly race-neutral, Randolph pointed out that they allowed private employers, unions, and local officials to bar African Americans from jobs that were funded by federal tax dollars and protected by federal laws. He demanded an FEPC law, not just to end discrimination by unions and employers but also to extend to African Americans the promise of economic and social citizenship that Roosevelt had linked to participation in the defense effort.

It was that egalitarian vision of social citizenship, as much as the constitutional principles of political equality, that inspired the modern civil rights movement. Like many other labor leaders of his generation, Randolph believed that the most effective path to "first-class citizenship" was to ensure that black men had access to wages and benefits necessary to ensure economic and social security for their families. The march never became the mass movement that he envisioned in 1941, but its objectives were sustained by a generation of young militants who would play key leadership roles in the civil rights movement. Emphasizing the need for sustained grass-roots organizing rather than a nationwide mobilization, activists linked the March on Washington initiative to women's organizations, unions, and churches in communities across the country. Inspired by the movement against British imperialism in India, they adopted the nonviolent techniques of civil disobedience that had been developed by independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. They also expanded the agenda of the movement from winning jobs to building unions and, more controversially, to demanding family-supporting jobs for black women as well as for black men. Finally, they pushed for an immediate end to segregation in the armed forces, universities, and other public institutions, which they viewed as inherently discriminatory and incompatible with the democratic rhetoric that Roosevelt used to inspire the defense effort.

Rather than narrowing their objectives in the interest of gaining broader support, organizers of the March on Washington united the various strands of black protest around the bold and expansive demand for "jobs and freedom." The initial proposal for the 1963 march came from the Negro American Labor Council, a largely forgotten organization that Randolph and other black trade unionists created to highlight the economic crisis caused by black workers' exclusion from skilled jobs and unions. Anna Arnold Hedgeman pushed the union activists to expand their agenda to include access to public accommodations and voting rights in the South, a move that allowed them to gain support from King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis's SNCC; and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a network of nonviolent activists that Bayard Rustin helped to create during the Second World War. Hedgeman also persuaded them to seek support from the National Council of Negro Women, a network of organizations claiming nearly 800,000 members, although Randolph and other male activists rejected her request to include black women in the official leadership of the march. The most reluctant supporters of the demonstration were Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and labor leader Walter Reuther, who joined the mobilization only after they were convinced that it would occur without them.5

We must not only focus on leaders and experienced activists in the civil rights movement, but also challenge the assumption that their beliefs and concerns differed significantly from those of their followers. While Randolph, King, and other national figures were the official spokesmen for the March on Washington, the primary task of organizing the protest fell to staff and elected officials of local civil rights organizations, unions, churches, and other groups who lived in the same working-class communities that formed the primary base of support for the movement. Perhaps the most important evidence of agreement between leaders and marchers was simply the fact that so many people traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles—most missing a day or more of work and all but a few paying their own way—to be in Washington that day. Some were students or full-time activists, but the vast majority consisted of autoworkers and meatpackers, teachers and letter carriers, domestic servants and sharecroppers who—aside from their membership in unions and civil rights organizations—had little history of political protest. Journalist Russell Baker described them as "a gentle army of quiet, middle-class Americans who came in the spirit of the church outing," suggesting that they were in Washington for pleasure or out of a sense of religious or patriotic duty. Malcolm X, a black nationalist who accused Randolph, King, and other leaders of tempering the radicalism of the protest, argued that the marchers had been "fooled." Given the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, however, it seems more likely that they believed deeply in the message that Randolph, King, and others proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day.6

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At the "Salute and Support the Heroes of the South" rally in Madison Square Garden on May 31, 1956, Eleanor Roosevelt and several other speakers emphasized that "everything isn't sweetness and light in the North insofar as the Negro is concerned," and that discrimination existed in New York as well as in Montgomery, Alabama. Earl Brown, the city councilman who had urged a mass exodus from Mississippi following Emmett Till's lynching, disagreed. "By no means should we overlook or cover up racial ills existing North of the Mason-Dixon line. But conditions are far different below it than above," wrote the black journalist and politician. Pointing out that racism was more firmly planted in southern "law, public opinion and practices," Brown insisted: "We cannot solve our problems in the North until we at least make some appreciable headway toward solving them in the South." For that reason, he applauded A. Philip Randolph for initiating the "truly mammoth" event. In addition to letting "the enemy know we are coming," the councilman wrote, it was significant that the rally was sponsored by a black trade unionist who had succeeded in convincing white union leaders that "their welfare is tied up in civil rights as well as the Negro's."7

Brown overestimated the support that Randolph received from white union leaders, but it was true that Randolph and other black trade unionists played key roles in drawing attention to and raising funds for the grass-roots movements that erupted in the South following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The massive rallies after Emmett Till's murder in August 1955 had been initiated by Willoughby Abner, a leader of the United Auto Workers in Chicago. That September, activists from the Chicago district of the United Packinghouse Workers had accompanied Till's mother to Harlem, where she spoke at a rally sponsored by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Cleveland Robinson and other black leaders of the Retail Workers District 65 had organized the Garment Center Labor Rally on October 11, 1955, in New York, and the Madison Square Garden rally had been organized primarily by Maida Springer of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.8

While black trade unionists agreed with Councilman Brown that segregation and discrimination were more deeply rooted in the laws and customs of the South, they were equally committed to eliminating them in the North, and specifically within the AFL-CIO. In July 1959, Randolph called a meeting of black trade unionists who had traveled to New York City for the 50th annual convention of the NAACP. The meeting was closed to the press and overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Robert F. Williams's call to "meet violence with violence." Nevertheless, more than 60 black trade unionists attended. Pointing out that more than a million black workers belonged to unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO—constituting the largest membership of African Americans outside the black church—Randolph urged the assembled to organize themselves for leadership in the "struggle for economic equality and the pressing needs for civil rights." The group resolved to introduce a resolution at the national convention of the AFL-CIO later that year, calling for the expulsion of any union that did not drop racial bars on membership and integrate segregated locals before June 1960.* They also decided to form a more formal network to coordinate their activities in various cities.

A public labor session at the AFL-CIO convention featured speeches by Randolph and white labor leader Walter Reuther, the president of the UAW and a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Randolph began on a positive note, pointing to the unprecedented number of black workers and the rise of nonwhite trade unionists to positions of leadership in the union movement. He also praised Reuther, AFL-CIO President George Meany, and the executive committee of the AFL-CIO for their personal commitments to civil rights. But he closed by blasting the federation for its "quite inadequate and much too slow" progress toward realizing those ideals, and he demanded that it "require labor organizations at all levels to comply with its constitutional provision outlawing race and religious discrimination."9

Despite its influence in black working-class communities, Randolph's organization, the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), made little headway with the AFL-CIO. At a meeting in Washington following the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in January of 1961, trade unionists called on the AFL-CIO to set firm timelines for affiliates to drop racially exclusive language from their bylaws, expand opportunities for black workers in union leadership and apprenticeship programs, and integrate "qualified Negro office and staff workers into all departments of the general headquarters of the AFL-CIO." Meany did not respond to these requests, but noticed that the NALC letterhead listed Theodore Brown, who was the assistant director of the AFL-CIO's Civil Rights Department, as secretary of the NALC. On April 30, 1961, Meany fired Brown on the grounds that he had charged the federation for unauthorized travel to civil rights meetings. Brown responded that the meetings were consistent with his duties, and accused Meany of punishing him for fulfilling those duties.10

Black trade unionists responded to Brown's dismissal by calling for a march on the AFL-CIO's national headquarters in Washington. After much debate, however, they resolved to delay plans for a march until Randolph could discuss the issue with Meany and other AFL-CIO leaders at a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in June.11

Tensions only grew when Randolph showed up at the executive council meeting with a detailed memorandum calling for stronger civil rights policies in the AFL-CIO, describing the growing problem of unemployment in black communities, and lamenting the "widening gulf between Negro and labor communities." He also presented reports on discrimination by unions at the port of New York City, and the practice of segregating housing and social events at state AFL-CIO conventions in the South. Reporting that the Virginia AFL-CIO had agreed to desegregate its convention that year after NALC activists threatened a boycott, Randolph announced a nationwide campaign to ensure that "all AFL-CIO State Federation Conventions are completely desegregated." In August, Meany expressed support for a bill sponsored by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to restrict federal funding from vocational schools that were not open to all workers. Although a spokesman from the US Labor Department complained it would be too costly to enforce, Meany endorsed the bill "as a start toward the larger goal of legislation on fair practices" in employment. When the executive committee met again on October 12, however, Meany blamed Randolph, rather than discriminatory unions, for "the gap that has developed between organized labor and the Negro community." At his suggestion, the white members of the executive committee voted to censure Randolph for making "incredible assertions, false and gratuitous statements, and unfair and untrue allegations" against organized labor. They also prepared a motion to expel the black union leader from the executive council at the AFL-CIO convention in December.

On October 13, 1961, the day after the AFL-CIO censured Randolph, the US Commission on Civil Rights issued a 246-page report on employment that "in effect upheld most of Mr. Randolph's charges." While it praised the Packinghouse, Auto, and Garment unions for taking "forceful steps" against discriminatory locals, the commission found that "most international unions have failed to exhibit any profound concern over civil rights problems." Investigators were particularly critical of craft unions in the building trades, where black workers were routinely denied access to apprenticeship programs and employment in skilled jobs. "Within the labor movement itself civil rights goals are celebrated at the higher levels," the commission observed, "but fundamental internal barriers tend to preserve discrimination at the workingman's level." Concluding that current "federal law has little impact on the discriminatory practices of labor organizations," the commission recommended that Congress and the president take stronger measures to prohibit discrimination by any agency, contractor, or union involved in a federally financed project; require state employment offices to ensure equal access to jobs and training programs; and deny collective bargaining protections to unions that denied membership to "any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin." In an editorial printed on October 15, the New York Times pointed out that the AFL-CIO's statements about civil rights were contradicted by the fact that "Negroes were barred, by a Washington electricians' local, from work on the construction of the AFL-CIO national headquarters" in 1959.12

Ironically, the report from the US Commission on Civil Rights seems to have given Meany reason to seek common ground with Randolph. On November 10, 1961, 300 angry black trade unionists gathered in Chicago for the NALC's second annual convention. The treasurer of the NALC was Richard Parrish, a school teacher from New York City and a leader of the American Federation of Teachers. "This was a show of power to demonstrate to Negro union members that they represent nothing when it comes to setting policies in the labor movement even though they pay dues," Parrish said of Randolph's censure, asking why liberal labor leaders such as Reuther or David Dubinsky of the Garment Workers had not stopped it. Rejecting NALC Vice President L. Joseph Overton's plan for a mass march, delegates resolved to work through their local unions and labor councils to elect delegates who would oppose Randolph's expulsion at the AFL-CIO convention a month later. By the time they got to the convention, however, they discovered that Meany had invited King to address the three-day meeting at Bal Harbour, the Miami resort where AFL leaders had gathered every winter since 1951.13

King did not know what to expect as he flew to Miami from Los Angeles, where he had spoken at a major rally sponsored by a black businessmen's club and a Baptist church. "Segregation is on its deathbed," he had told nearly 2,000 supporters in the Santa Monica civic auditorium on December 8. "But history has proven that the status quo is always on hand with an oxygen tank to keep the old boy alive." King got a "tumultuous standing ovation" by ending the speech with a line that he planned to use in Miami. Quoting a traditional spiritual, he looked forward to the day when he could truthfully sing: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

King had grown close to Randolph, Cleveland Robinson, and other black trade unionists since 1956, and had spoken to interracial meetings of District 65 and the Packinghouse and Auto unions. But the AFL-CIO convention in Miami was his first encounter with the 3,000 white men, a few women, and "a handful of Negro delegates" who headed the House of Labor. Meany received a standing ovation when he opened the meeting on December 9. President Kennedy gave a blistering talk about the threat of Communism and enlisted unions in the fight for freedom. Delegates rejected the proposal to expel Randolph and adopted what Randolph called "the best resolution on civil rights the AFL-CIO has yet adopted." They also applauded when Meany pinned a union button on King's lapel and introduced him for the closing address on December 11. Then they were silent.14

"Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren," King began, reaching out to his audience by asserting that the "inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions." Pointing out that many had opposed unions at the time, the young minister noted: "Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it." He continued by recounting how workers had been "emancipated" by the Wagner Act and other New Deal laws only to discover that they "tended merely to declare rights but did not deliver them." Now that African Americans found themselves in a similar situation, he declared, it was "not an historical coincidence" that they looked to labor for support. "Negroes are almost entirely a working people," King declared, and thus had the same interest as other workers in decent wages and working conditions; quality housing; health, education, and welfare policies; and pensions. That also led black organizations to support labor's legislative agenda and to "fight laws which curb labor." King won applause by pointing out that the same politicians who attacked unions were usually the ones who also rejected civil rights, and by calling on employers to ensure that automation does not "grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production."15

King moved cautiously toward a more direct criticism, urging Meany and the others to take seriously Randolph's criticism of segregation and discrimination within the AFL-CIO. Asking the AFL-CIO to "accept the logic of its special position with respect to Negroes and the struggle for equality," King urged the organization's leaders to follow through with their 1956 pledge to donate $2 million to the civil rights movement. He also noted that when "a Negro leader who has a reputation of purity and honesty which has benefited the whole labor movement criticizes it, his motives should not be reviled nor his earnestness rebuked." Then he closed with an uplifting refrain that he would use frequently in the next few years, asking labor leaders to join him in the struggle to "bring into full realization the dream of American democracy—a dream yet unfulfilled." Emphasizing economic concerns that could unite the two movements, King described a "dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few ... the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality—that is the dream."16

The motive behind Meany's invitation to King became evident a month later, on January 24, 1962, when the AFL-CIO president testified before Congressman Adam Clayton Powell's Committee on Education and Labor. "In our view, Mr. Chairman, the time is overdue to establish a policy—by the enactment of an enforceable statute—dealing with discrimination in employment for the United States as a whole," Meany began. As he continued, it was clear that this was not a sudden conversion to Randolph's side, but a realization that federal legislation would free him from the burden of confronting the Jim Crow unions himself. He conceded that "discrimination does exist in the trade union movement," but declared that the AFL-CIO was "a generation or more ahead of the employers" in the fight against discrimination. Besides, Meany added, when "the rank-and-file membership of a local union obstinately exercises its right to be wrong, there is very little we in the leadership can do about it, unaided."17

As he had repeatedly throughout his life, Randolph responded to the mounting frustration within the Negro American Labor Council by calling for a march on Washington. In January 1963, he asked his old friend Bayard Rustin, who was working for the left-wing War Resisters League, to prepare a proposal that could win support from civil rights and labor leaders for a "mass descent" on the nation's capital. Excited by the opportunity to revive mass-based protest, Rustin spent the next month planning Randolph's demonstration. He worked closely with Norman Hill, an NALC member who was employed by the Congress of Racial Equality, and Tom Kahn, a young white Socialist who was on vacation from Howard University. At the end of January, they delivered a three-page memorandum outlining an ambitious campaign to draw attention to "the economic subordination of the Negro," create "more jobs for all Americans," and advance a "broad and fundamental program for economic justice." Their plan centered on a massive lobbying campaign, in which 100,000 people would shut down Congress for one day while presenting legislators and the president with their legislative demands, followed the next day by a "mass protest rally." Randolph liked the idea, and the NALC vice presidents approved it on March 23. By then, the plan had expanded to include a mass march from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.19

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By the time King came to the stage at the March on Washington on August 28, he may have felt that the other speakers had focused too much on specifics, whether social or political. It was nearly 4 p.m., and some marchers had already been forced to head back to Union Station so they would not miss their train home. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson warmed up the crowd by singing the defiant spiritual "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned," which King had requested, and, when Randolph introduced the young minister, he got only as far as "the leader of the moral revolution" before the crowd erupted into applause for the man who was already recognized as the movement's most powerful speaker. King began with a scripted speech that emphasized the links between economic justice and racial equality, albeit more poetically than others, that had dominated the afternoon. "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check," he stated, pointing out that 100 years after Lincoln had freed the slaves, their descendants were "still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination" and restricted to "a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."20

King continued along the same themes as the other speakers—denouncing those who called for patience, emphasizing the national scope of the problem, and urging marchers to return home "knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed." Halfway into the prepared text, however, he pushed his notes aside and delivered an improvised version of the "I Have a Dream" refrain that he had pioneered at the AFL-CIO convention in 1961 and elaborated in several settings before delivering it at the Detroit "Walk to Freedom" a month earlier. Mahalia Jackson was heard shouting from behind him, "Tell them about the dream, Martin," although it is not clear whether he heard her. Whatever his inspiration for the shift, it provided King with an ideal ending for the most important speech of his career. "So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow," he stated sternly, "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' " The audience roared.21

King's "I Have a Dream" speech is justifiably remembered as the most powerful and effective address given at the March on Washington; but, taken out of context and often viewed as the only speech, it was the least representative or attentive to the specific goals and demands of the mobilization. Writing in the New York Times, journalist E. W. Kenworthy noted that while the other speakers "concentrated on the struggle ahead and spoke in tough, even harsh, language, ... paradoxically it was King—who had suffered perhaps most of all—who ignited the crowd" with a utopian vision of the future. Looking to a day when "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" and expressing a messianic confidence that "the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," the preacher delivered a much-needed respite to marchers who had endured a long day of intense political engagement. Ending with a picture of "that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last,' " King emanated an infectious optimism that brought even the most hardened and cynical SNCC activists to their feet, "laughing, shouting, slapping palms, hugging," and wiping tears from their eyes.22

After several minutes of roaring applause, Rustin returned to the podium and refocused the crowd on the specific tasks ahead. "The moment in that afternoon which most strained belief," according to journalist Murray Kempton, was the sight of the "radical pacifist" reciting the official demands of the march while "every television camera at the disposal of the networks was upon him." Randolph followed Rustin to the stage and led the crowd in a mass pledge to "join and support all actions undertaken in good faith in accord with the time-honored democratic tradition of nonviolent protest, of peaceful assembly and petition, and of redress through the courts and the legislative process." Close to 5 p.m., the march ended with a benediction led by Benjamin Mays, King's mentor from Morehouse College.23

By sundown the National Mall was deserted, save for the team of 400 city employees charged with picking up garbage, dismantling stages, and hauling away the portable toilets. Rustin had offered to recruit volunteers to do this, but city officials seemed eager to get the crowds out of town. Organizers of the march were happy to oblige. "We've got to get back home and finish the job of the revolution," CORE chairman Floyd McKissick declared as he left the Lincoln Memorial.24

As the representative of one of the civil rights groups responsible for the event, McKissick in fact had one final duty to perform before leaving Washington; with Randolph, Rustin, King, and other march leaders, he climbed into a shuttle for the short ride up Constitution Avenue to the White House. President Kennedy congratulated them for keeping order and sending a clear message to Congress but, in his excitement, seemed to have forgotten that his guests had been working since early that morning. "Mr. President, I wonder if I could have just a glass of milk," Randolph asked politely, and Kennedy sent for sandwiches and refreshments before they settled into a 60-minute conference with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the secretary of labor, and the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Afterward, Kennedy joined the march leaders for a press conference on the White House lawn, where he vowed to continue his work toward "translating civil rights from principles into practices," and promised to expand that struggle to ensure "increased employment and to eliminate discrimination in employment practices, two of the prime goals of the march." Echoing Randolph's insistence that such policies would benefit Americans of all races, Kennedy declared that the March on Washington had advanced the cause of 20 million African Americans, "but even more significant is the contribution to all mankind." Randolph concurred, expressing confidence that Congress would not only pass Kennedy's pending civil rights bill but a Fair Employment Practices Act as well. Celebrating "one of the biggest, most creative and constructive demonstrations ever held in the history of our nation," he called it an achievement of which "every American could be proud."25

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As history would have it, debate on all sides continued over the contents of the pending civil rights bill, and it would be Johnson, not Kennedy (assassinated three months after the march), who as president would lead its eventual passage through a divided Congress.

Few civil rights leaders predicted that Johnson would become a more passionate supporter of their cause than Kennedy had ever been. The day after Kennedy's assassination, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP received a call from the White House asking him to meet with President Johnson to discuss a strategy for passing the civil rights bill. Similar calls were made to Whitney Young of the National Urban League, King, Randolph, and James Farmer of CORE. On November 27, 1963, Johnson made civil rights a focus of his first major address as president. Against the advice of aides, who warned him not to waste time and political capital on a bill that had little hope of becoming law, he told a joint session of Congress that "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." Most importantly for civil rights leaders, Johnson made it clear that he intended to sign the version that the House Judiciary Committee had drafted in October, including a fair employment clause and stronger enforcement measures, rather than the much weaker bill that Kennedy had originally proposed in June. Johnson's actions were calculated to win votes from northern liberals and African Americans who saw him simply as a southern Democrat, but he also acted out of a sincere hatred for injustice and exploitation. In stark contrast to Kennedy, who came from one of the richest families in New England, the new president had grown up in relative poverty on a small farm in central Texas. In addition to making Johnson a staunch supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, that background also gave him an acute appreciation of the linkages between economic and racial inequality in the 1960s.26

Wilkins met with Johnson on November 29 and left the White House more optimistic about passing the civil rights bill than he had been in months. Calling leaders of the Big Six organizations (NAACP, NALC, SCLC, CORE, SNCC, and the National Urban League), as well as Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, Wilkins asked them to meet in New York the following Tuesday to coordinate their lobbying efforts. While each of those groups had suspended demonstrations temporarily in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, he asked them to consider declaring a moratorium on protests while the bill worked its way through Congress. To the dismay of Rustin, who stood to lose his only official position within the civil rights movement, the others also agreed to close the March on Washington's headquarters in Harlem and shift to a more traditional lobbying effort under the direction of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.27

Not all civil rights leaders were so impressed with Johnson. The only Big Six organization not invited to send a representative to the White House was the SNCC, despite the fact that its leadership was already in Washington for the organization's fourth national convention. But the four civil rights leaders who met with Johnson the week after the SNCC convention were optimistic, although they agreed with the young militants that further pressure was needed to realize the broader goals of the March on Washington.

By the end of 1963, the prospects for linking struggles for racial equality with struggles for economic justice looked better than they had since the march. Before meeting with King on December 3, Johnson convinced leaders of the House to file a discharge petition that would force conservatives to bring the civil rights bill to a vote before Christmas. He then sent his chief political aide to gather signatures for the petition on Capitol Hill, the first time a sitting president had intervened so closely in the workings of Congress since Franklin D. Roosevelt secured passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The following day, Johnson met with AFL-CIO President Meany, who had never been a reliable ally to the president or the civil rights movement, and asked him to endorse the petition strategy. Meany demonstrated his support by attending a strategy session organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, stating that labor backed the bill "as a matter of simple justice" and "as a memorial to President Kennedy." Randolph called Meany's support for the bill "complete, comprehensive, positive and without reservations," and the New York Times reported that veteran observers "sense a possible dramatic breakthrough" on the civil rights bill. "It is too turbulent to predict anything certainly now," one congressman stated, "but I've never seen one before where we've had the president going, and the civil rights groups, and labor, and the church people."28

The House did not vote on the bill before Christmas, but a major victory came two weeks later, when, in his first State of the Union address, Johnson vowed not only to pass a strong civil rights law but also to couple it with an "unconditional War on Poverty in America." The idea of an "attack on poverty" had been floated during the Kennedy administration, but Johnson's program was far more ambitious. Concerned primarily with civil rights and tax assistance for "the middle-income man in the suburbs," Kennedy had insisted that antipoverty programs remain modest and focused narrowly on remedial health and education for poor children and young adults. In contrast, Johnson called for a billion-dollar investment in "better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls." The large scale of the program, however, and the inclusion of policies that had been demanded by the March on Washington—such as a public works program and extending minimum wage laws to all workers—indicated that the War on Poverty was also influenced by the civil rights movement.29

The clearest evidence of civil rights leaders' influence on Johnson was his insistence that the War on Poverty would complement rather than compete with policies banning discrimination. "Let me make one principle of this administration abundantly clear," Johnson stated in his State of the Union address. "All of these increased opportunities—in employment, in education, in housing, and in every field—must be open to Americans of every color. ... For this is not merely an economic issue, or a social, political, or international issue. It is a moral issue, and it must be met by the passage this session of the bill now pending in the House." Johnson affirmed that synergy between civil rights and economic policies when he invited civil rights leaders to the White House a week after his speech to hear specifics about the War on Poverty and to suggest additional measures "to eliminate economic hardship among Americans." According to James Farmer, Johnson "made it very clear that he feels the fight on poverty and illiteracy is a vital part of the fight on discrimination." Whitney Young agreed that job creation and improved public services were critical to black communities, where nearly a quarter of all workers were unemployed; and although Johnson assured them that the House would vote on the civil rights bill before the end of January, Roy Wilkins stated that discussion of antidiscrimination policies "was only incidental to the main thrust on poverty and the fact that the antipoverty bill will affect Negroes."30

Johnson's machinations helped guide the civil rights bill through the House, but, as expected, it required more pressure to win a hearing in the Senate. This time around, the president was adamantly opposed to any compromise, as were key allies in the Republican Party, so the prospects of a prolonged standoff were more likely and eventually led to a filibuster. Strategic differences sharpened as the stalemate dragged on. Black trade unionists responded to the filibuster with a mass mobilization, and this time their proposal was even more ambitious than the March on Washington. On May 2, 1964, the NALC's L. Joseph Overton asked the national board of the NAACP to support a "Nation-Wide One-Day Work Stoppage and Prayer Vigil."

The NALC approved the proposed strike. But even as Randolph called for it to break the filibuster, he warned that the civil rights bill would not address all the concerns identified at the march. Meeting the most pressing demands of the march, the bill would ban discrimination in stores, restaurants, hotels, and other public accommodations; prohibit state and local governments from discriminating in access to public services or the right to vote; and empower the federal government to speed the desegregation of schools. Most importantly for Randolph, the law would create an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prevent businesses, unions, and government from discriminating against potential employees on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, thus making permanent and expanding the power of the FEPC that President Roosevelt had created to stop the planned march on Washington in 1941. While Randolph emphasized the importance of passing the bill, he also noted that it was insufficient to overcome the "economic, social, cultural and political deprivation" caused by three centuries of slavery and "semi-feudal serfdom under segregation."

It is not clear what impact the threat of a general strike had on the filibuster, but it seems to have encouraged senators to resolve the impasse over the civil rights bill. On May 6, 1964, one of the nation's most widely respected observers of organized labor devoted his nationally syndicated column to the work stoppage. Reporting that NALC members held leadership positions in AFL-CIO unions in 31 cities across the United States, Victor Riesel argued that black trade unionists were likely to gain support from local chapters of the NAACP, the National Urban League, SCLC, and SNCC. Some labor leaders predicted the effort would fail, but Riesel noted that they were "the same forces which shied from the capital demonstration until it became apparent in cities across the nation that the big unions would support it and that scores of thousands would pour into Washington." It was significant, "especially in this election year," that black trade unionists were most influential in "the vast northern and far western industrial areas," the columnist predicted, noting that if the strike won support from the same unions that had endorsed the March on Washington, it "could roll and keep workers from huge factories, transportation facilities and service industries across the land—and set a precedent for a series of stay-aways." Senate staffers may have missed the articles in the Amsterdam News on May 30 and the Chicago Defender on June 8, both of which reported that 300 black trade unionists had endorsed Randolph's strike proposal at the NALC convention, but it is almost certain that Riesel's column made its way through the Senate office building at some point before June 10, when northern Republicans broke with the southern Democrats and voted to end the longest filibuster in US history. After a series of fights over amendments and a second vote in the House, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.31

William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South (University of Illinois Press, 2005). This article is excerpted from The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, by William P. Jones. Copyright © 2013 by William P. Jones. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.

*In 1957, the American Federation of Teachers expelled locals that refused to desegregate.

March organizers decided not to go through with the lobbying campaign. In early August, Bayard Rustin announced that the demonstration would include no civil disobedience and that lobbying would be restricted to formal meetings between leaders of the sponsoring organizations, President John F. Kennedy, and Congress, while other marchers were encouraged to leave Washington immediately following the march.18


1. Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986): 217–220; and E. W. Kenworthy, "200,000 March for Civil Rights in Orderly Washington Rally; President Sees Gain for Negro," New York Times, August 29, 1963.

2. "Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," unlabeled folder, box 39, B. F. McLaurin Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

3. "Excerpts from Addresses at Lincoln Memorial during Capital Civil Rights March," New York Times, August 29, 1963.

4. "Excerpts from Addresses at Lincoln Memorial"; and John Lewis, "Text of Lewis' Speech at Washington," Student Voice 4, no. 3 (October 1963): 1, 3.

5. Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 159.

6. Russell Baker, "Capital Is Occupied by a Gentle Army," New York Times, August 29, 1963; and George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (New York: Merit Publishers, 1965), 17.

7. "Garden Rally," New York Amsterdam News, June 2, 1956; and Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 154–155.

8. Christopher Robert Reed, The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership, 1910–1966 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 180; and Yevette Richards, Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 91.

9. "Meeting Minutes," May 26, 1959, folder 2, box 4, James Haughton Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; "Labor's Side," Los Angeles Sentinel, August 6, 1959; "Reuther, Randolph to Address Labor Sessions of NAACP Meet," Atlanta Daily World, July 1, 1959; and "A. Philip Randolph Blasts Race Bias in NAACP Address," Atlanta Daily World, July 18, 1959.

10. "Negroes War on Top Labor Heads," New York Amsterdam News, May 6, 1961; and "Annual Report, NALC, 1960–1961."

11. "Negroes War on Top Labor Heads"; and James Haughton, "Minutes of Emergency Meeting of the National Executive Board, NALC," n.d., folder 1, box 2, James Haughton Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

12. Peter Braestrup, "Rights Unit Asks Congress to End Union Race Bars," New York Times, October 14, 1961; " 'Jim Crow' Unions," New York Times, October 15, 1961; and Horace Sheffield, "Brief in Support of Proposed FEPC Legislation," NALC Records, reel 5, Richard Parrish Papers [Additions], Microfilm Edition, published in cooperation with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

13. Herbert Hill, "The Racial Practices of Organized Labor: The Contemporary Record," in The Negro and the American Labor Movement, ed. Julius Jacobson (New York: Anchor Books, 1968): 288–289; "Negroes Gird for Support of Randolph," Chicago Defender, November 13, 1961; and Associated Press, "AFL-CIO Ends Halcyon Days at Bal Harbour Site," Toledo Blade, February 19, 1996.

14. Martin Luther King, Jr., "All Labor Has Dignity," ed. Michael K. Honey (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 31–35; "Segregation Must Die If Democracy to Live—King," Los Angeles Sentinel, December 14, 1961; and Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 309.

15. King, "All Labor Has Dignity," 35.

16. King, "All Labor Has Dignity," 35.

17. "Labor Leader George Meany to Address NALC," New York Amsterdam News, October 27, 1962.

18. John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York: Free Press, 2003), 343–344; and Paula F. Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 261.

19. Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, 323–325; and David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage, 1986), 266.

20. "King's Address a Fitting Climax"; and Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," in Civil Rights since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle, ed. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 504–507.

21. Drew Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 51–63.

22. Kenworthy, "200,000 March for Civil Rights"; Thomas Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 181; and Hansen, The Dream, 51–63.

23. "King's Address a Fitting Climax"; and Murray Kempton, "The March on Washington," New Republic, September 14, 1963, 19.

24. "Civil Rights: A Message from 200,000 Marchers," Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1963; "Marchers Award 'Today Is History,' " New York Times, August 29, 1963; Marlene Nadle, "The View from the Front of the Bus," Village Voice 18, no. 46 (September 5, 1963): 5, 14; Charles Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 207; and "Views Differ on Effect of Rights March," Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1963.

25. "Big Day—End, and a Beginning," 22; and "President Meets March Leaders," New York Times, August 29, 1963.

26. Lyndon B. Johnson, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966); Roy Wilkins and Tom Mathews, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (New York: Penguin, 1982), 296; and Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 257.

27. Wilkins and Mathews, Standing Fast, 296; "Civil Righters Speculate over Johnson's Meeting with Wilkins," Chicago Defender, December 5, 1963; "See High Hopes for Johnson," Los Angeles Sentinel, December 5, 1963; and D'Emilio, Lost Prophet, 362.

28. Anthony Lewis, "President Spurs Drive for House to Act on Rights," New York Times, December 4, 1963; "Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Slates Washington Meeting," New York Times, December 4, 1963; "Pres. Johnson Throws Weight of Administration behind All Out Campaign for Civil Rights Bill," Atlanta Daily World, December 4, 1963; and "Labor Pledges Support to Johnson on Rights," Chicago Defender, December 5, 1963.

29. Johnson, Public Papers, 112–118; and Carl Brauer, "Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty," Journal of American History 69, no. 1 (June 1982): 114.

30. Caro, The Passage of Power, 547; "Johnson Asks Negroes to Help Battle Poverty," Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1964; and "Negro Rights Leaders Talk with Johnson," Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1964.

31. "Labor Leaders Propose Rights Summit to Review Aims, Means," New York Amsterdam News, June 13, 1964; Victor Riesel, "One-Day Work Stoppage Planned," Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1964; "Labor Convention Opens Friday in Cleveland with Many Demands," New York Amsterdam News, May 30, 1964; "Work Halt, Prayer Next Big Civil Rights Move"; "Dirksen the Real Hero in Battle for Cloture," Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1964; and Caro, The Passage of Power, 568–569.

Reprinted from American Educator, Fall 2013

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American Educator, Fall 2013