Quantcast

The March on Washington in Historical Context | The Nation

  •  
Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

The March on Washington in Historical Context


March on Washington. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Next week, as no one will be allowed to forget, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. In a country in which ignoring history is just about the national pastime, somehow this event—what it was like, and what it accomplished—is remembered indelibly. But here is what we have forgotten: how the event was thought about before it happened. In a way, the contrast between how the March on Washington was envisioned by most Americans on August 27, and how it was recalled on August 29, was its greatest accomplishment of all—the reason it became one of history’s hinges.

As I wrote in my book Before the Storm, “It was hard for white America to see anything benign in a mass gathering of Negroes. The fears were primal, subliminal. ‘I don’t like to touch them. It just makes me squeamish,’ one Northerner told Newsweek. Another said, ‘It’s the idea of rubbing up against them. It won’t rub off, but it don’t feel right either.’ The magazine’s polling showed that 55 percent of whites would object to living next door to a black person—and 90 percent would object if their daughter married one.”

Yesterday I did a deeper dive into what happened when a country that thought like that, pictured thousands of angry black people massing in Washington, DC. The answer was: violent chaos.

The first news stories about, as the first Associated Press story put it, “Police intelligence reports that 100,000 Negroes might march on Capital Hill,” came on June 23. Some context: that May had begun the escalating confrontation between the forces of Martin Luther King Jr. and the forces of Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama. By Memorial Day, civil rights protests spread to half a dozen cities, including Columbus, Ohio, where two men chained themselves to the furniture in the capitol building. On June 11, registration day for new students at the University of Alabama, the state’s new governor George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa to make sure no blacks were among them. His supporters included the editorialists of the Winona (Kansas) Leader, who wrote, “The very people who have the greatest stake in preserving the Constitution”—black people—“are doing the most to destroy it” with their meddlesome protesting. The same night as George Wallace’s stand, one of those meddlesome protesters, NAACP voter registration coordinator Medgar Evers, returned home from a day’s work past midnight and was shot dead in his own driveway. That evening, President Kennedy had given a brave, bold speech announcing his support for a civil rights bill to outlaw segregation in public accommodations—“a moral issue…as old as the scriptures…as clear as the American Constitution.” On June 19, the president presented his legislation in a special message to Congress. It included this admonition: “There have been increasing public demonstrations of resentment directed against this kind of discrimination—demonstrations which too often breed tension and violence. Only the federal government, it is clear, can make these demonstrations unnecessary by providing peaceful remedies for the grievances which set them off.” He repeated the point at the end of the speech: “I want to caution against demonstrations which can lead to violence.”

I explained Kennedy’s strange logic, which was all but universal among whites and even among plenty of timorous blacks, in Before the Storm: “In their conclusions the White House betrayed a constellation of unspoken assumptions about race relations—about social relations—in the United States: introduce bold legislation and the troublemakers would quit, like kidnappers who had been paid their ransom.”

But the troublemakers did not quit. And that freaked people the hell out.

The Associated Press: “It was learned from a top informant that Washington and Capitol police officials have expressed strong doubts that incidents could be avoided if 100,000 demonstrators, or even fewer thousands, began milling about Capitol buildings or grounds, or attempted to stage ‘sit-ins’ in or around the offices of any filibustering senators.”

Ooooh! “Milling” integrationists: scary, kids!

Martin Luther King, bless his soul, understood the game: don’t back down. He joined a group of leaders who met with the president. “Dr. King had told a banquet group just the before that ‘if they start filibustering, by the hundreds and the thousands and by the hundreds of thousands white people and black people ought to march on Washington.”

Damn, he spoke well. That sentence is poetry, pure pulsating rhythm: “by the hundreds and the thousands and the hundreds of thousands.” He also strategized well: he understood how the popular fear of violence advantaged the marchers. It was, as we’ll see, a sort of bargaining chip. And he would not trade it away lightly. The opposite, you might say, of Barack Obama, who keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office, and will no doubt have sonorous words on tap this Wednesday lionizing King—whose thought I don’t really think he understands at all.

Obama should actually keep a bust of Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, because that is more who he is like. “I have never proposed sit-ins at the Capitol,” Wilkins said, according to The New York Times. “I have said that any demonstrations, in Washington or elsewhere, should have specific, not general, objectives…I am not involved in the present moment.” Five days later he warned against what he termed a “whoopin’ and a hollerin’ operation.” I suppose he had reason to fear. For what the marchers were proposing to do might well be illegal. Explained the AP: “Federal laws specifically forbid demonstrations at the Capitol, Capitol buildings, or Capitol grounds without permission granted specifically by the vice president and the speaker of the House, acting jointly…. The blocking of roads and streets leading to the Capitol, and unauthorized ‘harangues’ also are forbidden in the Capitol area.” (Informed readers: is this still true?)

The AP cited their inside source, the one who warned about the possibility of violence: “One plan under consideration…is an effort to induce leaders of civil rights groups in ‘reasonable numbers’ to accept a ‘dramatic confrontation’ meeting with congressional leaders and other appropriate Congress members as an alternative to sit-ins. ‘Citizens have a right to petition the Congress,’ this source said,’ but they do not have a right to try to overpower it.’ He said there has been official consideration of whether the police might have to be augmented by military personnel if no compromise can be evolved.” The next day, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy warned the march’s organizers off: while he had “great sympathy” for protest, “Congress should have the right to debate and discuss this legislation without this kind of pressure.”

Right. Because the “national conversation” would have happened on its own, without the rude interruption of Edward Snowden, oops, I mean A. Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King…

In the weeks ahead, as desegregation protests roiled (memorial rallies for Medgar Evers, a “wade-in” at a Biloxi beach that saw seventy-one arrested and packed into a single moving van while 2,000 jeering whites looked on) the debate would churn, though it really wasn’t much of a debate: everyone who mattered agreed the march plans were insane. As one editorialist confidently explained, “Marches on the nation’s capital in the past have been much smaller than the one proposed by Negro leaders. They have been extremely well disciplined; nevertheless they have been marked by violence…. Chances are that even the huge operation the Negro leaders threaten will be equally futile, for while individual congressmen may be no braver than their fellow men, they certainly would not accept physical intimidation. And however nonviolent the demonstrators professed themselves to be, intimidation would be the implication—if not the clear intent—of the march. And even those most earnestly involved must see that the resultant frustration would only multiply the threat of violence.”

Yes: the point was that violent backlash was protesters’ fault. Before the Storm: “Theirs was an almost desperate belief that America was by definition a placid place, if only ‘extremists’ could be kept in check. That didn’t just mean the racists who perpetrated the violence—but also those who ‘disturbed the peace’ on the other side by protesting racism.” (I found one example of a civil rights worker charged with disturbing the peace for getting pistol-whipped. At the time, a John F. Kennedy might have even agreed with the charge. The thing that makes Martin Luther King’s masterpiece “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” such a political watershed was that it was one of the first texts to explicitly take this mad consensus on, as explained beautifully in this timely book.) As the Milwaukee Sentinel opined on Independence Day, “Although still not convinced that ten of thousands of demonstrators in Washington are going to do anything to advance the cause of civil rights by courting mob violence, we welcome the assurances that they do not intend to throw themselves on the wheels of congress, as it were.” Thanks, Milwaukee Sentinel!

Their was another fear driving polite opinion: the tides of right-wing reaction. That same Independence Day conservatives thronged a massive Barry Goldwater rally at the DC armory despite the sweltering heat; around that time, a congressman told columnist Stewart Alsop, “A few race riots in the North and Barry might make it.” (And wouldn’t that all be your fault, Martin Luther King?) The Air Force announced a policy of allowing its personnel to participate in civil rights demonstrations; George Wallace responded, “The Air Force is encouraging its personnel to engage in street demonstrations with rioting mobs…. Perhaps we will now see Purple Hearts awarded for street brawling.” March organizer A. Phillip Randolph responded on August 3, promising “There will be no ‘lunatic fringe ‘in the march and no Communists…. He said that about 2,000 persons had been trained as a cadre to keep the march orderly.” He confirmed that no sit-ins were planned for within the Capitol. Perhaps he felt comfortable sounding conciliatory because they had just won a huge concession: JFK had endorsed the event as “in the great tradition of lawful protest” and that it gave “every evidence it is going to be peaceful”—although, at that, leaves had been cancelled for the entire DC police force.

The controversy had not abated. On August 14 the AFL-CIO announced it would not participate. Three days later, an AP article on crowd control (“Ready for Rights ‘Flood’ ”) explained, “Thousands of troops will be at nearby barracks in case of trouble. Fire department apparatus can get to the scene in a hurry in case of a blaze.” Now the fears concentrated on the forces of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, who couldn’t get a permit for his own counter-march.

Three days out, the NAACP finally praised the enterprise with faint damn: “Wilkins said Sunday night that Wednesday’s civil rights march on Washington was worth the risk of violence or disorder.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Two days out, and the AP reported, “Leaders continued to pledge calm and dignity…. But there was still apprehension about transportation, about the uncertainty of numbers, about unexpected violence.” (Transportation fears: railroad workers happened to be threatening a national strike that week—quaint!—threatening the progress of the twenty special trains each carrying perhaps 1,000 riders that had been scheduled across the country.)

One day out: “Authorities still insisted they looked for no major trouble, but they were taking extraordinary precaution. For example, in a last-minute move, the District of Columbia commissioners prohibited all sales of alcoholic drink from midnight Tuesday night to 2 am Thursday. Some 5,000 police, National Guardsmen, deputized firemen, and police reservists have been assigned to crowd and trouble control duties. About 4,000 regular Army troops and Marines are in barracks nearby, with big helicopters ready to ferry them into the heart of the city if necessary.” Senator Hubert Humphrey, defensively: “These marchers are not trouble-makers and rabble-rousers but responsible American citizens” A black minister organizing a contingent from Connecticut: “He said the march ‘is committed to a purpose and is not just rabble rousing.’…The ‘Connecticut Guardians,’ an organization of Negro policemen, acted as monitors to keep order on the train.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel had worried, “The danger is that a march turn into a stampede. That would be a tragic ending, to have the Negro equality movement dashed to death on the steps of the Lincoln memorial.”

Nope. August 28. They came. They sang. He spoke. We conquered. The rest is history.

Gary Younge writes about how Dr. King’s dream is still misunderstood.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.