Around 250,000 people showed up on the National Mall in Washington DC last Saturday to draw a line in the sand and to take a movement that had already been taking place since Reconstruction to its next level.
ABOVE PHOTO: At the rally for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, a woman holds up a sign calling for reparations for Black Americans for slavery. (Photo: Shutterstock.com/Philip Yabut)
By Amy V. Simmons
Last Saturday, a multigenerational, diverse crowd of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C to mark the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the space where it happened.
Organized by the Drum Major Institute, the National Action Network, along with many partners, it was billed as “not a commemoration, but a continuation” — acknowledging not only the work that still needs to be done, but the serious challenges to the policy victories achieved in the years following that historic 1963 event.
But, in many ways, from the early slave revolts to Black Lives Matter, it has always been a continuation.
March history matters
Nuance is often lost when it comes to recollections of historic events. Narratives about major victories and major failures mingle together, with the truth lying somewhere in between.
One major fact to bear in mind is that the events of 1963 were preceded by previous demands made years earlier during the March on Washington Movement.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A.Philip Randolph, activist and nonviolence advocate Bayard Rustin and NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, who were the chief strategists behind the original march concept in the 1940s, presented a list of demands to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that included among other things the establishment of a FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Committee) and access to the booming wartime job market for all people. The pressure resulted in Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 —- Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry — in 1941, and Truman’s Executive Order 9981 — Desegregation of the Armed Forces — in 1948, among other victories.
Yet, although Randolph canceled the 1941 march — a major compromise — it was with the understanding that much still needed to be done for permanent change to be realized. Some achievements, like the FEPC, only lasted for five years, and job inequality was still a major issue.
So, it wasn’t a surprise when compromise and concessions were still a factor in the proposed postmodern march in 1963.
As a result of his concerns about how march optics or violence could undermine his attempt to pass the Civil Rights Bill, President John F. Kennedy initially opposed it. He and others were given reassurances that it would be peaceful and gave the government a huge say in the planning process, something that rankled many.
Outside pressures were not the only source of conflict leading up to the 1963 march.
A young John Lewis, representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was compelled by March leadership to tamp down his remarks because they thought that they were too incendiary.
Many women who played an outsized role in March leadership and mobilization for over 20 years were relegated, for the most part, to the event’s background, apart from a few brief remarks, performances, and recognitions.
As a whole, March Movement founders, civil rights organizations like the NAACP, CORE (Congress For Racial Equality) SNCC, Urban League, SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), unions, clergy, and other groups had competing interests, which didn’t always lead to unity.
Still, the basic demands were clear — voting rights, job training for jobs with livable wages, access for all people to this training and subsequent jobs, the establishment of a minimum wage, and an end to police brutality among other things.
A 21st century coalition of people, causes and concerns
This year’s March on Washington commemoration focused on many of the same demands, but also on current concerns like LGBTQ rights, an end to gun violence, voter suppression and white supremacist terrorism.
The speakers last Saturday were also decidedly more diverse in gender, race, ethnicity and age than the largely male group that spoke at the 1963 event.
The youth leaders were fully engaged.
Ashley Sharpton, founder, and director of NAN’s Youth Huddle, spoke about the current attacks on women’s reproductive freedom, voting right and more.
Her generation often says, “we’re outside,” for things they enjoy, but that they must be equally committed to engaging in the fight, she explained.
“We’re outside to turn up and get drunk,” she said. “We’re outside to turn up and go to a bar. Were outside in our best silver lining for Beyonce and Club Renaissance. Everyone is outside, distracted. A lot of us are outside for the wrong reasons. But today we’re outside for the right ones. We came here today to continue what they did 60 years ago. … but we know we need to get inside to make change.”
For older movement participants, it was an occasion to take stock and share wisdom.
Former United Nations ambassador, congressman, mayor, activist, pastor, and King confidante Andrew Young, now 91, reflected on what he called a “long but wonderful struggle” and issued a universal charge to those present. The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, which preceded the 1963 March and urged the federal government to comply with the then three-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision, was also attended by Young. It was at this event that King delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech, which captured national attention.
During his remarks, Young recounted an incident from his early childhood that helped to frame his life’s work, on the national and international stage. In New Orleans, when Young was four years old, the Nazi Party staged a demonstration on a corner 50 yards from the house where he was born. His father said something about the incident that has remained with him to this day.
“‘Those are white supremacists, but their problem is with God,’” his father said. “‘You take care your business and let God take of them. Don’t ever let anybody make you mad. Don’t get mad, get smart.’”
Despite of the magnitude of the challenges being faced today, Young encouraged those present to put it the work that remains to be done into perspective.
“Don’t look at all the things that are wrong,” he said. “Look back on where we were 66 years ago, when we had the first March on Washington.”
As attendees prepared to march, Drum Major Institute board chair Martin Luther King, III, his wife, Drum Major Institute president Arndrea Waters King, and daughter Yolanda Renee King, as well as National Action Network founder and civil rights activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke to the crowd.
“I wanted to let you know how I’m feeling today because I’m very concerned about the direction our country is going in, and it is because instead of moving forward, it feels as if we are moving backward,” Martin Luther King III said. “The question is, what are we gonna do? Do we realize that it is we the people who can make changes and represent history in the right way? Ensure that hatred and hostility is not expounded all over our nation? As you know, my mother and father dedicated their lives to embracing love and lifting up the goodness in people. In fact, if somebody was 90% bad, Dad would focus on the 10% good and work to extract that from them.”
People must remain engaged, Martin Luther King III said. He wondered aloud what his father might say to those present if he were alive today.
“Dad would probably say now is the time we must preserve, protect and expand democracy,” King said. “We must ensure that voting rights is protected for all people. We must ensure that our women and children are treated fairly. We must end gun violence.”
There are forces afoot that are trying to take us back, to divide us, Sharpton said. Alluding to MLK,Jr.’s iconic 1963 speech, 60 years later, when it comes down to voter rights, reproductive freedom, gender equality and more, it is a battle between the “dreamers” and the “schemers,” he said.
“It is the dreamers on one side, and schemers on the other. … the dreamers are in Washington D.C.; the schemers are being booked at Fulton County Jail,” he said. “The dreamers will win, will march, and will stand up — Black, white, Jewish, LGBTQ. We are the dreamers, the children of the dream.”
Philadelphia NAACP’s role
The NAACP played a significant role in the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, alongside countless other organizations, and individual participants. The Philadelphia Branch, which chartered buses for the event, showed up en masse, along with many allies from around the city.
In a Smithsonian Magazine article published July 2013 on the occasion of the event’s 50th anniversary, Joyce Ladner, a SNCC member who worked closely with March organizer Bayard Rustin on the event, had a bird’s eye view of the crowd when they arrived.
“I had a stage pass, so I could get on the podium,” Ladner recalled in the article. “Just standing up there looking out at not very many people, then just all of the sudden, hordes of people started coming. I saw a group of people with large banners. Philadelphia NAACP could have been one section, for example, and they did come in large groups.”
As a chapter of one of the remaining legacy organizations who were present on that momentous occasion in 1963, the Philadelphia Branch is cognizant of the importance of preserving history, taking action in the present, and planning for the future. They sponsored buses to the commemoration events, just as they did 60 years ago.
“The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights for all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination,” current Philadelphia Branch president Catherine Hicks said. “The 60th anniversary of the March on Washington holds immense significance for the NAACP and society as a whole. The initial march, which took place on August 28, 1963, was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as a catalyst for change and inspiring generations to fight for racial equality. From the perspective of the NAACP, this anniversary represents the continued struggle for justice, equality, and the advancement of African Americans and other marginalized communities. It serves as a reminder of the progress that has been made since that historic day, while also highlighting the work that still needs to be done to address systemic racism, discrimination, and social injustices that persist today.”
“The 1963 March on Washington was a significant turning point, as it brought together diverse groups of individuals who shared a common goal of achieving racial equality,” Hicks continued. “It was during this march that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. This speech resonates even today, reminding us of the importance of unity, peaceful protest, and the power of collective action.”
On a personal note, my late father, civil rights and community leader Eversley Vaughan, who served as one of the Philadelphia Branch’s youth presidents in the 1940s, was on one of those buses in 1963.
Even though I was a very young child, I do remember him coming into the room I shared with my sister before he left early that morning.
He kissed us goodbye, holding us tight. There were no guarantees that the event would not end violently, regardless of what the nonviolent intentions of the organizers were.
This was front of mind with my mother, who was extremely worried. She went to the end of the block and watched him walk to the bus stop until she could see him no longer. The range of emotions experienced that day affected my parents profoundly, and for disparate reasons. It was the final memory both spoke about at the end of their lives, particularly my father. He died on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the March, an event he had planned on attending before suffering a massive heart attack days earlier.
We watched a rose and peach colored sunset through his hospital room window as he recalled, for the last time, that defining event in his life.
The euphoria and hope from that day in 1963 was short lived. The “continuation” phase was initiated two weeks later on September 15 when the four girls were murdered at the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham.
Nearly 60 years later, as the March on Washington commemoration events in DC were winding down, a white supremacist shot and killed three African Americans at a Dollar General store and in its parking lot in Jacksonville, Florida, after being chased away by a security guard from an HBCU campus.
A luta continua.