As we approach the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in 1963, it’s worth revisiting this history in detail. (See excerpted article below)
This coming August 24th, people will March on Washington again. Now, as in 1963, the March is closely connected to the Democratic Party and the sitting President. In 1963 this meant that the politics of the event were strictly regulated and kept within a relatively narrow and moderate framework.
It was for this reason that Malcolm X referred to the March as the “Farce on Washington.” Recently Cornell West has criticized the planned August 2013 March in somewhat similar terms.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the 1963 March was tremendously important in terms of galvanizing the nascent civil rights movement, and bringing out millions of Black people who wanted to actively fight against racism and segregation. It’s also where Dr. King gave his famous, “I have a dream,” speech.
Thus, the negative similarities between these two Marches notwithstanding, it would be an utter mistake for anyone — especially radicals — to not participate in this March to the fullest extent possible. Yes, the March will be an Obama-Fest. But there will be literally thousands of radicalizing Black and anti-racist White people in attendance who will be open to a much more fundamental socialist critique of institutional racism and the shortcomings of Obama’s centrism.
It is for this reason that radicals must be present in order to offer a visible political alternative to Obama and the Democrats, whose role in dealing with the question of racism in the U.S. today has — on balance — been downright deleterious.
The sit-ins and marches begun in April 1963 were met with ferocious violence, as Bull Connor unleashed police dogs, and used firehoses and clubs to disperse demonstrators, arresting hundreds in the process. Televised footage of the struggle in Birmingham sparked protests around the country and led thousands more to join the civil rights struggle. Under mounting pressure the Kennedy administration intervened and negotiated an agreement with Birmingham’s corporate bosses and elected officials. The agreement, as historians Meier and Rudwick argue, brought not “freedom now” but token concessions that later were not carried out.” But it forced Kennedy to announce his intention to introduce civil rights legislation. Birmingham also forced Kennedy to identify himself more strongly with the civil rights movement—and to attempt to co-opt and control its activities. The 1963 March on Washington provided the perfect opportunity.
Modeled after the 1941 March on Washington movement launched by A. Philip Randolph, the 1963 March on Washington was seen by SNCC and CORE militants as a mass protest that would paralyze Washington to express a growing militancy and impatience among Blacks. Under the control of more conservative elements in the civil rights movement—among them King and Randolph—it was to be a celebration and endorsement of Kennedy’s civil rights bill. In the end the march drew 250,000 to Washington and was seen by organizers and the Kennedy administration as a great success. But the march only convinced militants that King’s strategy had to be rejected, and many shared Malcolm X’s description of the event as “the farce on Washington.”
Even SNCC activist John Lewis, by no means a left-winger, had planned to criticize the Kennedy administration. “In good conscience we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late,” he had planned to say.
"There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality…. What is in the bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5.00 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?"
He never made those remarks, agreeing to remove them when pressured by march organizers. But even his censored speech raised thorny questions: “Where is our party? Where is the party that will make it unnecessary for us to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?”
By the end of 1964 many SNCC members would answer Lewis’s question by eliminating the Democratic Party from consideration. The strains between SNCC and civil rights leaders like King reached a breaking point, as SNCC consciously identified itself with more radical ideas. “By 1965 SNCC had become, in the eyes of supporters and critics, not simply a civil rights organization but a part of the New Left.”42 White violence, the government’s refusal to act, the moderation of civil rights leaders, and the slow speed of change had led SNCC militants to reject the politics they accepted in 1960.
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