As remembered and commemorated by most Americans, the 1963 March on Washington — its 60th anniversary fell on Monday — represents the essence of the Civil Rights Movement, defined in our national mythology as a colorblind demand for neutrality and fairness in the face of discrimination, embodied in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Less well remembered, in our collective memory at least, is the fact that both the march and King’s speech were organized around much more than opposition to anti-Black discrimination. It was officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with a far more expansive vision for society than formal equality under the law. The march wasn’t a demand for a more inclusive arrangement under the umbrella of postwar American liberalism, as it might seem today. It was a demand for something more — for a social democracy of equals, grounded in the long Black American struggle to realize the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the potential of Reconstruction.
Consider the 10-point list of demands issued by the organizers of the march. They wanted “Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation” to guarantee all Americans “access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education” and “the right to vote.” They wanted “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” They wanted “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” They wanted federal legislation to protect workers from exploitation and a federal government that brought its full power to bear on discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Or, better yet, consider the labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s opening speech to the assembled marchers. “We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines,” said Randolph, for whom the 1963 March on Washington was the fulfillment of a call made more than two decades earlier, in the midst of World War II, to “Let the Negro masses speak with ten thousand Negroes strong, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in the capital of the nation.”
“The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality,” Randolph said in his speech. “It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property.” We know, he continued, that “we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.”
The chief organizer of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, had a complicated relationship with his allies in the movement. His youthful communism, wartime objection to the draft and unapologetic sexuality — Rustin was openly gay — rendered him an outsider among civil rights leaders and a target for rivals and opponents. Nonetheless, he spoke on the day of the event, delivering the demands of the march directly to the viewing public, and gave a clear account of the social democratic vision behind the march in a memo written for others in the movement:
<i>“We believe that the Negro community has an especially important role to play. For the dynamic that has motivated Negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism, in all its forms, may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.”</i>
Much if not most of the Civil Rights Movement has been subsumed into the mythology of Martin Luther King Jr. That is, it has been subsumed into the image of a King who stands for little else than colorblindness, nonviolence and moral suasion. That doesn’t represent the full King, of course, and in the same way, that doesn’t represent the March on Washington as it was actually conceived and carried out.
The real march, through the paramount influence of Randolph, Rustin and others, was an expression of the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of the Black freedom struggle as voiced and articulated throughout the previous decades, by activists, intellectuals and laborers alike. As the liberal journalist Murray Kempton wrote of the event for The New Republic, “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.”
Living now, as we do, in a period of anti-democratic retrenchment at the hands of powerful reactionaries, it is as important as ever to remember and commemorate the radicalism of both the March on Washington and the entire Civil Rights Movement. Not just as inspiration, but as a reminder that the struggle for democratic freedom — whether we look to the enslaved Americans who claimed the Declaration of Independence as their own or their descendants who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly two centuries later — has always been a struggle against the privileges of caste and class.
Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times columnist.