From California Labor and Employment Law Review, Vol. 27, No. 5, September 2013
The March on Washington
By Karen V. Clopton
In this issue we are commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred on August 28, 1963. What is the significance of the March to practitioners of labor and employment law? First, the March attracted over 250,000 participants and was successful in pressuring the administration of President John F. Kennedy to initiate Title VII. Second, during this event, Martin Luther King delivered his memorable ''I Have a Dream'' speech. Last, several giants of organized labor in America were intricately involved in the planning and programming for the March, including Walter Reuther and A. Philip Randolph. As Clayborne Carson, Professor and Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, who attended the March at age 19, aptly explained: "The March on Washington continues to symbolize a turning point in my life as well as in world history. It was the moment when I first felt part of an inexorable movement that would make the world better. In the continuing global struggle for peace with social justice, it was one of those exceptional moments when injustice seemed outnumbered if not subdued." Professor Carson has graciously submitted his first person account to be published in this issue of the Review. We also gratefully acknowledge the Institute's King Encyclopedia and Taylor Branch's latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Simon & Schuster 2013), as sources for some of the information in this introduction.
The 1963 March on Washington had several important employment and labor law precedents. In the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called for a march on Washington, D. C., to draw attention to the exclusion of African Americans from positions in the national defense industry. This job market was closed to African Americans, despite the fact that it was growing in order to supply materials to the Allies in World War II. The threat of 100,000 marchers in Washington, D.C., pushed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, mandating the formation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was empowered to investigate racial discrimination charges against defense firms. In response, Randolph cancelled plans for the march.
More than a decade later, in May 1957, civil rights demonstrators had assembled at the Lincoln Memorial for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, marking the third anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Reverend Martin Luther King addressed this demonstration. About a year later, in October 1958, there was a Youth March for Integrated Schools, which was held to protest the lack of progress since the Brown ruling. Coretta Scott King delivered remarks that Reverend King had been scheduled to deliver, as Reverend King was suffering from ill health after being stabbed by Izola Curry.
By 1963 (which was the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), most of the goals of these earlier protests still had not been realized. There were still high levels of black unemployment. Work offered to most African Americans only paid minimal wages and provided poor job mobility. And there was systematic disenfranchisement of many African Americans. As early as 1962, these issues, as well as the persistence of racial segregation in the South, prompted discussions about organizing a march for political and economic justice. Indeed, on May 24, 1962, on behalf of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Randolph wrote to Secretary Stewart Udall of the Department of the Interior seeking permits for a march culminating at the Lincoln Memorial. Plans for the March stalled when Udall encouraged the groups to consider the Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument, instead of the Lincoln Memorial.
In March 1963, Randolph telegraphed King, indicating that the NALC had begun planning a June march ''for Negro job rights,'' and asked for King's immediate response.1 In May, King joined Randolph, James Farmer of CORE, and Charles McDew of SNCC in calling for such an action later that year, declaring, ''Let the black laboring masses speak!''2 After notifying President Kennedy of their intent to hold the March, the leaders of the major civil rights organizations agreed upon August 28th. The stated goals of the March included passage of ''a comprehensive civil rights bill'' that would end segregation in public accommodations, include protection of the right to vote, provide mechanisms for redressing violations of constitutional rights, desegregate public schools, create a massive federal works program ''to train and place unemployed workers,'' and enact a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment.
As the summer passed, the list of organizations participating in and sponsoring the event expanded to include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and many others.
The March on Washington was not universally embraced. It was condemned by the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, who referred to it as ''the Farce on Washington,'' although he ultimately attended.3 The executive board of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) declined to support the March, adopting a position of neutrality. Nevertheless, many constituent unions attended.
The diversity of those in attendance was reflected in the event's speakers and performers. They included singers Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan; Little Rock civil rights veteran Daisy Lee Bates; actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; American Jewish Congress president Rabbi Joachim Prinz; Randolph; UAW president Walter Reuther; March organizer Bayard Rustin; NAACP president Roy Wilkins; National Urban League president Whitney Young; and SNCC leader John Lewis.
A draft of John Lewis' prepared speech, circulated before the March, was denounced for its militant tone. In the original version of the speech, Lewis charged that the Kennedy administration's proposed Civil Rights Act was ''too little and too late'' and threatened not only to march in Washington but to ''march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy.''4 In a caucus that included King, Randolph, and SNCC's James Forman, Lewis agreed to eliminate those and other phrases, but believed that in its final form his address ''was still a strong speech, very strong''. 5
The day's high point came when Reverend King took the podium and delivered what has come to be known as his ''I Have a Dream'' speech. King commented that ''as television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the border oceans, everyone who believed in man's capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race,'' and characterized the March as an ''appropriate climax'' to the summer's events.6
After the March, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House, where they discussed the need for bipartisan support of civil rights legislation. Though they were not passed until after Kennedy's death, the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflect the demands of the March.