50th Anniversary of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Symposium

  • August 30, 2013
    Guest Post

    by David Frank. Mr. Frank is a former speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of State and Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Education. Frank is working on a biography of A. Philip Randolph. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The seeds of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were planted, almost 40 years earlier, in Harlem, when several sleeping car porters met with A. Philip Randolph, a magazine editor and eloquent soapbox orator.

    Though overshadowed today as on the day of the march by the magnificent message of Martin Luther King Jr., Randolph was the architect of the March on Washington and the movement that led to it.  His pivotal part in the march 50 years ago was the culmination of a lifetime of laboring in political and social battles, an often lonely voice insisting on dignity and fair treatment from racist institutions.

    Born 40 years before King, in 1889, in the small town of Crescent City, Florida, Randolph was the son of a traveling African Methodist Episcopal preacher who supplemented his meager church income as a tailor. From this inauspicious beginning, Randolph rose to a position of leadership that saw him engage in high-stakes discussions in the Oval Office three times in the mid-twentieth century with three different presidents. In 1941, he demanded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt integrate African-Americans into the rapidly growing defense industry, threatening a march on Washington unless Roosevelt complied. In 1948, he insisted that President Harry S. Truman integrate the armed forces. In 1963, he resisted President John F. Kennedy’s plea to call off the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rejecting Kennedy’s argument that the march could somehow undermine the effort to enact a civil rights bill.

    Randolph took an eclectic route from his humble background to tense negotiations with U.S. presidents.  He was at various times an elevator operator, a ship’s waiter (fired for trying to organize his fellow workers), a Harlem street corner orator and a two-time unsuccessful Socialist candidate in New York.    For about a decade, beginning in 1917, he co-edited a lively, radical journal of politics and the arts called “The Messenger.” Fiery editorials questioning why blacks, denied equality in America, should serve in the First World War, (“Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has,” Randolph and his co-editor Chandler Owen wrote) led Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to label Randolph and Owen “the most dangerous Negroes in America.”  In 1918, Randolph and Owen were arrested in Cleveland and held in jail for two days for urging African-Americans to resist the draft.

  • August 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Janai S. Nelson, law professor, associate dean for faculty scholarship, and associate director of the The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development,  St. John's University School of Law. She is also author of the article, “The Causal Context of Disparate Vote Denial” on the Voting Rights Act. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The commemoration of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is a reminder both of how far we've come as a nation and how far we’ve yet to go.

    The 1963 march signaled the beginning of the end of America’s racial apartheid regime and brought over a quarter of a million citizens together, largely African-Americans, in one of the nation’s largest human rights demonstrations.  The power of their presence and the movement they represented forced the nation’s leaders finally to allow the words of the American constitution to ring with unprecedented truth. 

    However, many of the legal victories of the civil rights movement -- affirmative action, voting rights, and equal employment opportunities -- have been scaled back by the Supreme Court in recent years.  The real change in our democracy envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others requires immediate and sustained attention from our legislators and advocates.  It means strengthening the Voting Rights Act by reinstating federal oversight of our nation’s most troubled voting locales.  It also means articulating an affirmative, equal right to vote, and making voter registration automatic. 

    These are fundamental steps to ensure that the commemoration of the march and King's dream speech is more than just a remembrance but rather is a call to action. As I’ve written in this post on Reuters, “The promise held in King’s dream is to wake up one day to its reality — not to slumber while discrimination marches on. The immediate step we can take is to reverse the continuing assault on voting rights and expand participation in our democracy. Rehabilitating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down one of the law’s most important provisions, should be at the top of this agenda.”  The full text on this post, “King’s Deferred Dream of Democracy,” is here.

  • August 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephanie Schlatter, Board Chair Ex Officio of the Washington, D.C. Lawyer Chapter. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    I remember asking my parents years ago about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and all the events of the 60's and wondering what stood out in their mind. My mom spoke about her memories of the May 1961 bus burning in Anniston, just down the road from her home and a few weeks before she graduated from high school.  She remembers how so many people were sickened by the Klan, yet frightened about speaking out.  My dad spoke of being a young Army officer and meeting with the African American soldiers when the news came about what happened that fateful day in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and how he struggled to find the words to answer their questions of how and why they should fight for a country where a man like Dr. King could be assassinated. I remember thinking how my dad must have struggled with his answer, knowing that only a few years earlier he had been in Montgomery with the crowd that welcomed Dr. King and the marchers from Selma.

    As I set out the morning of Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I sensed the reasoning in his answer - this is our country. All of us.  And we must be willing to fight, and speak up, and speak out, to make it a more perfect union for all of us - men, women, young, old, gay, straight, immigrants, employed, unemployed - everyone. We all hold the dream of America in our hearts - that is why we march. That is why we remember.

  • August 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Erik Lampmann, Senior Fellow for Equal Justice, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28th, 1963 shook the foundations of racist American society.
    For one, the mobilization of almost 250,000 individuals on the National Mall threatened entrenched white interests. It forced the Kennedy administration to take meetings with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders which eventually led to a strong(er) federal civil rights bill in 1964.

    In many ways, the March punctuated the Civil Rights Movement.
    Coming two months after the assassination of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and one month after a church bombing which led to the death of four young black girls in Birmingham, the convening power of the March was able to unify the voices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the Negro American Labor Council under one banner.

    In the face of mainstream media debates on the merits of the March, its aims, and its successes, it’s important to remember the first march 50 years ago was originally conceived as an economic justice mobilization. It’s entirely accurate to argue that the March was situated within the Civil Rights Movement writ-large. That said, it’s perhaps more accurate to focus on the March’s unparalleled critique of economic inequality.

  • August 28, 2013
    Guest Post

    by William E. Forbath, Associate Dean for Research, Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law, University of Texas at Austin School of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Not only conservatives, but we liberals and progressives have forgotten much about the kinds of rights and the kinds of equality demanded by the March on Washington half a century ago today.  Conservatives have fastened on the famous line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – that one day black children will “be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – and tied the March and King’s “Dream” to their color-blind Constitution.  But liberals and progressives also have fashioned a story-line that ties the March to a narrower vision than the one that actually animated the organizers and marchers that day.  Our standard accounts tend to slight the links that the March forged between racial equality and economic justice.   They say that the March focused on the right to vote and an end to segregation and discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations.  In that way, they too suggest that the marchers’ main demands for legal change were met. 

    For conservatives, the March stood for color-blindness, which is already within our grasp, if all of us only shared the courage of the Chief Justice’s convictions about our over-reaching civil rights laws and doctrines.  For liberals and progressives, the March stood for the advances in civil rights embodied in the great civil rights statutes of 1964 and ’65.  So, for us, too, if only the venerable 1960s civil rights laws were enforced to the hilt, the “Dream” of 1963 would be within reach.

    Our standard liberal accounts, in other words, depict the March as a great landmark in what we have come to depict as the hopeful “early” phase of the civil rights movement, demanding the kinds of laws that Congress soon would enact.  Only later – in this familiar “early”/ “later” phase narrative of the civil rights movement – did the civil rights movement “go North” and confront for the first time the “intractable problems” of urban poverty and economic deprivation, on which the movement foundered.   This is the narrative that informs such liberal classics as the great “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series; one finds it in most constitutional law casebooks; and it also shapes the contrasts President Obama has drawn between the “economic populism” of the New Deal, with its focus on jobs and economic justice, and the 1960s battle for civic equality and an end to Jim Crow, as the core of what the civil rights movement was about.   

    In fact, however, economic injustice, joblessness and exploitation were squarely on the March on Washington’s agenda back in 1963. If the March is a landmark of the “early” phase of civil rights movement history – its demands a key source for our accounts of the original, core meaning of the movement’s vision of rights and equality, then we must include economic enfranchisement in the original mix.  The March’s demands were riveted on what its organizers called the “twin evils of racism and economic degradation.”