Earlier this week, we celebrated the anniversary of the March on Washington. Its formal name was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Most of us remember it as the time Martin Luther King Jr. uttered the line, “I have a dream.” Those four words were only a tiny part of his 17-minute speech but they’re the ones that ring in our hearts and memories to this day.
An aside: I’m not able to post video of King’s speech here, nor are many people able to do so. Film footage of it is not in the public domain. Members of King’s family own the rights to it, as well as a bunch of other King-related materials. Swear to god, you can get it on Amazon. Acc’d’g to this January 2017 article in the Washington Post, not even the makers of the 2014 film “Selma” could use the footage because it already had been grabbed and paid for by Steven Spielberg for a movie he wanted to make.
I bet a lot of people think the March on Washington was strictly a King rally. A quarter million people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC on that brilliantly sunny, hot August afternoon. People came on buses, by hitchhiking, by carpooling, by train, even by foot from all over the country. Young and old. White people, too, in a town where, a scant 38 years before, 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. By the time of the March on Washington, the KKK had been relegated to the American fringe, albeit an awfully powerful, too often deadly fringe. A fringe that held sway with local, state, and national politicians even as King stood on the speaker’s platform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August Monday. (A fringe that still carries weight today, albeit under different banners.) King at the time was the biggest name in the fight for civil rights in America. King today is pretty much the only name many of us remember in the fight for civil rights in America.
The fact is King was only one of many activists, advocates, celebrities, and swells invited to the event. So, who was sending out those invitations?
The March on Washington was the brainchild, and the result of the hard work, of two people whose names are largely forgotten in 2023 but who, all those years ago, were titans in the effort to bring equality and rights to all American citizens, even — gasp! — those with dark skin.
These two were A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
There’s not one child in a hundred today who’d be able to tell you who those two fellows were. Hell, there’s not one adult in a hundred. Well, among white people, at least.
Randolph was a labor union leader. He’d formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters back in 1925, the same year that huge crowd of KKK members had marched in Washington I mentioned earlier. Born in Jim Crow Florida in 1889, Randolph remembered seeing his mother sit on the family front porch, a shotgun at the ready in her lap, as her husband, armed with a pistol, set off for the Putnam County jail to confront a white mob trying to lynch a black man being held there.
Randolph felt the crush of institutionalized racism, southern apartheid, northern segregation, and the visceral fear white America felt about Black people, naturally making him feel as though he were not of this holy land. He was pushing 30 years old when the Bolshevik revolution overturned the ruling order of Russia and sent waves of panic around the world. Randolph was inspired by the idea of socialism, as well as the organizing tactics of the socialist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “the Wobblies). He wasn’t the only Black person, alienated by America’s vicious racism, who flirted with — and were courted by — this nation’s sworn philosophical enemies. singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson was another. The novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, too.
The likes of J. Edgar Hoover reacted to these flirtations/courtings by attempting to paint all civil rights activists as dangerous, godless commies.
I’ll attempt to defend Randolph, Robeson, Wright, and Ellison by saying the true horrors of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and the potential for tyranny in highly centralized communism were not realized and/or understood for many years. Marx’s ideas sound good on first reading but, in practice, they’re quite a few steps worse than late-stage American capitalism.
By World War II, Randolph had emerged as America’s top civil rights leader. In 1941, he and Rustin began discussing a mass march of the nation’s capital to protest discrimination and demand jobs. The two were partly inspired by Gandhi’s pacifist protests and resistance against the British Raj. A few federal laws and executive orders over the next few years temporarily satisfied civil rights activists but outright racism had re-stoked the fire by the early 1960s.
Rustin labored under two “handicaps”: not only was he Black, he was queer. He was a brilliant organizer, putting together the famous Freedom Rides and helping form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition to co-organizing the March on Washington, he formed numerous support groups for tenants, workers and voters. He kept a low profile because of his homosexuality, otherwise his voice might have become as loud, nationally, as King’s.
Raised in relative affluence by his grandparents in a small town near Philadelphia, Rustin as a child met civil rights giants like W.E.B. Du Bois because his grandmother, Julia, a Quaker, was active in the early NAACP. He began talking — and thinking — about things like systematic racism and Jim Crow laws at a very young age. By World War II, he would be a key actvist in the fight to protect West Coast Japanese-Americans who were being interned and their possessions seized.
It wasn’t until the Reagan Era when Rustin finally began agitating for gay rights. He titled his 1986 speech for gay rights in New York City, “The New Niggers Are Gay.” Those were the days when the strategic and thoughtful use of the N-bomb imparted a heft, an urgency, rather than simply being a dirty word.
The March on Washington wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr.’s baby. It was Randolph’s and Rustin’s.