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The March on Washington

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

In 1962, Rustin began planning an “Emancipation March for Jobs,” with A. Philip Randolph's blessing, to combat economic inequality. Support for the march initially came from northern labor communities. By 1963, however, there had been a revitalization of the Civil Rights Movement, due largely to the sit-ins, CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC’s Campaign in Birmingham. Largely in response to the Birmingham campaign, President Kennedy had drafted a civil rights bill. The scope of the original March suddenly seemed too small. The specific economic demands of the March, including a $2 minimum wage and a federal works program, were dropped in favor of another goal: to pressure Congress into passing the civil rights bill. It became know as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was co-sponsored by the major civil rights organizations including the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC, as well as white groups for racial equality.

Rustin at the March on Washington

Mainly because of Rustin’s history with conscientious objection, communism, and homosexuality, James Farmer (the leader of CORE) and others thought he would endanger the march. Therefore, A. Philip Randolph was officially in charge, but appointed Rustin as the deputy director. Rustin headed the central office, raised money, organized and recruited marchers, and set up the schedule for action in D.C.

The march was a departure from earlier nonviolent direct action tactics. The organizers of the march decided there would be no civil disobedience, and no disruptions. Groups with communist or socialist reputations were excluded from participating, and placard slogans had to be approved by Rustin’s office. It was tightly organized and controlled. This approach reflects the goal and scope of the march. Rather than directly confronting and challenging wrong, the demonstrators were rather showing their solidarity and support for civil rights legislation. Rustin decided that unity and respectability were of utmost importance, and later reflected that their ability to pull it off so impressively was perhaps what made the march so powerful.

A couple of weeks before the march, Bayard was verbally attacked by Senator Strom Thurman, who accused him of being a communist, draft dodger, and immoral person (here alluding to homosexuality). Randolph issued a statement in support of Rustin, writing “I am sure I speak for the combined Negro leadership in voicing my complete confidence in Bayard Rustin’s character, integrity and extraordinary ability.” ( Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement, 142). Thurmond’s attack, along with other attempts by individual politicians to derail the march, was unsuccessful. Kennedy himself originally opposed the march. When he saw it was inevitable, he tried to become a speaker. The organizers declined, rather than let him co-opt their movement.

Rustin’s meticulous planning paid off. More than 200,000 people attended, and the whole thing went off without a hitch. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was perhaps the crowning moment. The march was a huge success in terms of the visibility of the Civil Rights Movement. As for the bill, it took a full year until the Civil Rights Act was passed. It is unclear what kind of direct impact the mach had on its passage. The 1964 Civil Rights Act brought a legal and official end to Jim Crow segregation. Changes in the Civil Rights Movement, anticipating this eventuality, had been brewing since the Birmingham Campaign.

Changing Goals and Tactics

This period of time marks a shift in the goals of Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. Previous nonviolent efforts like sit-ins and boycotts were meant to effect local change and end Jim Crow segregation in the South. The objective of the march was to force Congressional action. The Civil Rights Movement had arrived on the national stage. As Rustin wrote before the March, the movement had reached “the phase of the use of mass action” (111). The momentum and fervor of the movement at the time is clearly visible in Rustin’s writing. In ‘’The Meaning of Birmingham’’ (1963), he writes:

“The civil rights movement has reached a yet new step in its development…. [It] includes all levels of the negro community… It is a movement that consciously intends to transform the white power structure of this country; a movement that has taken the initiative away from the Kennedy administration (and the forces that would contain the movement with moderate concessions); a movement that will not be satisfied with integrated lunch counters and promises but that is demanding jobs and freedom now.” (in Time on Two Crosses, 110.)

This reflects the clear shift in objectives for Rustin. With the impending demise of segregation, and the popular growth of the movement, Rustin’s focus shifts to economic inequality, and to the structures and institutions that enforce racial oppression. This meant a geographical shift as well. In ‘’The Meaning of Birmingham’’ Rustin writes:

“This struggle is only beginning in the North, but it will be a bitter struggle. It will be an attack on business, on trade unions, and on the government… In the North, Negroes present a growing threat to the social order that, less brutally and more subtly that in the South, attempts to keep him ‘in his place.’… What is needed is an ongoing massive assault on racist political power and institutions” (111).

The March on Washington embodied these shifts in that is was mass action on a scale the Civil Rights movement had never seen before, made direct demands to the government, and put economic equality on the agenda. In the ‘’Preamble to the March on Washington’’ (1963) Rustin writes that there is “an unresolved crisis in the nation economy” (112), the unemployment and poverty of both black and white workers. He argues that the end of legal segregation would not be sufficient in achieving integration. In the same preamble, he writes, “Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation, and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists…” (113).

The March on Washington’s official goal, given its timing and need for widespread support among demonstrators, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Arguments for economic equality were placed on the back burner. But they were at the forefront of Rustin’s mind. He had made the intellectual shift towards fighting structural economic oppression before the Civil Rights Act had even been passed. Furthermore, by 1963 Rustin’s approach to nonviolent direct action had completely changed. Though still an ardent proponent of nonviolence, Rustin was much less tied to Gandhian protest tactics than he had been previously. The needs of the Civil Rights Movement had outgrown these methods. A new type of political action was needed to achieve a new goal. Rustin lays out this argument in perhaps his most important written work: From Protest to Politics. His continued dedication to structural economic change led to The Freedom Budget.

(March and Biographical Information from Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin quotes from Time on Two Crosses.)


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