On Aug. 28, 1963, the March on Washington, featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, became the touchstone of the American civil rights movement. But our focus on one man and one speech has obscured some of the history and meaning of the event. As we mark this milestone, let’s take a closer look at popular misconceptions about what brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington 50 years ago.
Martin Luther King Jr. organized the march.
The March on Washington was initiated and directed by A. Philip Randolph, a 74-year-old black labour leader who first called for a march on the Capitol to protest employment discrimination in 1941. Though that event never happened, Randolph’s organization, the Negro American Labour Council, initiated another protest in January 1963, then reached out to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights and labour groups.
This iconic protest had many fathers. In addition to Randolph and King, the 10 official chairmen of the event included John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, as well as another labour leader and three religious leaders. The National Council of Negro Women also supported the march, but Randolph and other male leaders refused to include its president, Dorothy Height, in the official leadership. Despite vigorous protest from black women, they insisted that women could be represented by men.
The main goal of the march was to eliminate Jim Crow laws.
Marchers demanded equal access to public accommodations, housing, education and voting rights, but in an official list of demands, they also called on federal authorities to create "meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages" for unemployed workers and raise the minimum wage to a level that would "give all Americans a decent standard of living."
For many participants, the most important demand was a federal Fair Employment Practices Act banning government agencies, private employers, unions and contractors from discriminating against workers. The act had been a central aim of the civil rights movement since Randolph first envisioned a march — and it was realized with the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The rhetoric of the march was manipulated and softened by white liberals and the Kennedy administration.
This charge was first made by Malcolm X, who famously dismissed the demonstration as a "Farce on Washington," and taken up by Black Power and New Left activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the March on Washington gained support from liberals — both black and white — and reluctant acceptance from the Kennedy administration, Randolph, King and other activists retained control over its goals and tactics.
When some liberals objected to Lewis’s use of the words "revolution" and "masses," Randolph dismissed them, saying, "I’ve used them many times myself." Lewis did agree to add a mild endorsement of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill to his speech and to drop a plea to "burn Jim Crow to the ground." Objections to such charged language, however, came from Randolph, King and other black leaders who saw it as a departure from the legislative goals and nonviolent principles at the core of the civil rights movement.
Media coverage of the "I Have a Dream" speech focused on interracial harmony, overlooking more radical demands for economic justice and full employment.
King’s speech won widespread praise for its power and eloquence, but it was not seen at the time as the most important expression of the demonstration’s objectives. There were many other players on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial that August day, and they were well covered by the media.
The three major television networks broadcast the entire event live, and it was one of the first events transmitted by satellite to Europe. Newspapers and magazines covered the march extensively, giving particular attention to Randolph and detailing the list of demands. Only after King’s assassination in 1968 did "I Have a Dream" come to be seen as the singular expression of the demonstration’s goals and objectives, overshadowing its economic aims.
The march awakened white Americans to the injustices faced by African Americans but had little direct impact on law or policy.
While political leaders and the media praised the march for presenting a peaceful, respectable side of the civil rights movement, the march had little measurable impact on public opinion toward segregation and racial equality. White Americans had grown more tolerant of African Americans and racial integration in the two decades before the March on Washington. And while the demonstration reinforced that trend, it also hardened the opinions of those who remained committed to segregation and white supremacy.
On the other hand, the march did have a direct impact on policy. It solidified a political coalition behind the effort to strengthen and pass the civil rights bill that Kennedy had introduced to Congress in June 1963. In addition to bolstering the enforcement provisions of the law, this coalition added the employment discrimination measures that Kennedy had rejected. Now considered the most important feature of the Civil Rights Act, Title VII was not likely to have been created without the influence of what was officially the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Even the abbreviated name by which we remember the march obscures its true meaning.
William P. Jones is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.
—The Washington Post