March on Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s cover story, Nation columnist Gary Younge uses the occasion of this Wednesday’s fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington as an opportunity to recall the context in which those dramatic events of the summer of 1963 actually occurred:
Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.
That quest for our nation’s founding ideals is also served when we tour The Nation’s coverage of the civil rights movement in the weeks immediately preceding and following the March. What we find bolsters Younge’s argument and shows that emphasizing both the vigor with which the movement was opposed as well as the radicalism of its more disruptive—and for that reason, eagerly forgotten—socioeconomic demands is not a revision of civil rights history, but a restoration.
In remarkable editorial dated August 10, 1963, bearing the simple headline, “The Whites,” the magazine praised the assertiveness and recent successes of the civil rights movement, but offered a pointed critique of the general population of white Americans who treated the movement with either disdain or poorly concealed condescension:
The white majority’s attitude seems to be based on apprehension, uncertainty, reluctance, false piety and a suddenly acquired determination to sin a little less than before.…
The fact is that racism, in its modern connotation, is a virus that must be ‘overcome’; no society is immune until it has experienced it. We have a chance, then, in the glare of world scrutiny, to be the first large industrial nation to overcome this damnable blight.
This is a prospect to excite emotions and stir the heart. Yet the whites continue to act as though they were being dragged into the future caterwauling, haggling, grimacing, hemming and hawing, bargaining, resisting, hedging and rolling their eyes. Their attitude is only the more curious in that the evidence is now clear that integration is good for the nation, good for business, good for the arts, for religion, for sports, for labor, for education, for government; good also for our immortal souls.