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This Week in 'Nation' History: The Forgotten Radicalism of the March on Washington | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Forgotten Radicalism of the March on Washington


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.

In the issue dated September 7, 1963, which would probably have been on newsstands the day of the March, the novelist and social critic Harvey Swados wrote in “Revolution on the March” about the intense preparations that went into the event, much of it focused in a small office on West 130th Street in Harlem. The piece is a fascinating read today for two reasons. First, Swados offers contemporaneous observations of Bayard Rustin, the woefully underappreciated activist who, as Ari Berman writes in this week’s issue, organized of the March but was later spurned because he was gay, and was recently awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Swados wrote that Rustin had “a driving mind ruthless as a clenched fist.” Second, the article explicitly confirms Younge’s contention that as early as 1963, the movement was about much more than equal political rights:

As events have unfolded, including the efforts of the New Frontier to embrace and envelope the marchers, their demands have simultaneously broadened and become more specific. And it began to become clear that as the logic of the situation and the fervor of the young forced it onward, the March—that is, the grand coalition—would have to call not only for the Kennedy civil-rights bill, not only for more jobs in general terms, but for total civil-rights legislation and total economic demands surpassing anything conceived of by white liberals and well-intentioned officialdom, and involving a dislocation—with incalculable consequences—of the warfare-welfare state and its present power structure.

In the next issue, The Nation reckoned with the legacy of what had occurred and, again, emphasized the expansiveness of the protesters’ demands. This week, as the country celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a symbol of all that the civil rights movement has achieved, one cannot read The Nation’s September 14, 1963, editorial without a profound sense of tragedy—and anger—over what it still has not:

The March will go down in history as a superb example of orderly, democratic self-expression. It should bring a blush of shame to the cheeks of those who tearfully voiced a variety of misgivings about the enterprise and suggested that it should not be staged. It should also mildly embarrass those who deployed troops and police as though Washington were about to be besieged by a hostile army instead of being visited by a vast number of friendly and well-disposed citizens who conducted themselves with the utmost restraint, dignity and impressive dedication to a fine public purpose. The demonstration should also establish what has been clear all along—at least to those who have had more than a nodding acquaintance with the so-called ‘Negro problem’—that the Negroes are probably the least alienated of America’s racial minorities and the least revolutionary in any ideological sense. The overwhelming drive of American Negroes, in all regions, at all levels, is for middle-class status; they want to participate, on terms of freedom and equality, in the Great American Barbecue.

But a question remains: after the civil-rights issue has been won, as it will be—that is, after all legally sanctioned forms of Jim Crow discrimination have been removed—what then? All that needs to be done to take the disturbing overtone out of this question is to grant Negroes the right to join the American middle class on terms of full freedom and equality. This is far from an intimidating prospect, it could mean greater buying power, more profits, a higher GNP. In practical terms, however, it poses some major social, economic and political problems. But civil rights is the first phase and victory in this should set the stage for the larger reforms and structural changes in the economy that must come next.

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