The 28th of August 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the largest political rallies in US History for African American civil rights. Between 200,000 and 300,000 participants marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial demanding meaningful civil and economic rights. At the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech urging for the end of racial discord. This March played a significant role in encouraging the passing the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). We’ve compiled reflections on the March from several Oxford authors to mark the occasion.
Photo by Leffler, Warren K., photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“The long experience of slavery in America left its mark on the posterity of both slave and master and influenced relations between them more than a century after the end of the old regime. Slavery was only one of several ways in which the white man has sought to define the Negro’s status, his ‘place,’ and assure his subordination. Exploitation of the Negro by the white man goes back to the beginning of relations between the races in modern times, and so do the injustices and brutalities that accompany exploitation. Along with these practices and in justification and defense of them, were developed the old assumptions of Anglo-Saxon superiority and innate African inferiority, white supremacy and Negro subordination.”
—C. Vann Woodward, author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, praised by Martin Luther King, Jr. “The historical Bible of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Fernandez, Orlando, photographer.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“[A. Philip] Randolph penned an article entitled, ‘Let the Negro Masses Speak’ for the March 1941 issue of Black Worker, the [Board of Sleeping Car Porters]’s official organ. In a stirring conclusion, Randolph again commanded 10,000 black Americans to march on Washington. ‘Let them swarm from every hamlet, village and town,’ he declared, using words similar to those Martin Luther King, Jr. intoned from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial over twenty years later. ‘From the highways and byways, out of the churches, lodges, homes, schools, mills, mines, factories and fields. Let them come in automobiles, buses, trains, trucks and on feet. Let them come though the winds blow and the rains beat against them.’”
—David Welky, author of Marching Across the Color Line: A. Philip Randolph and Civil Rights in the World War II Era
Photo by Unnamed organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [Public domain]
“[John Lewis, newly elected chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] charged: ‘We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here.’ Lewis continued, ‘They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages at all…. While we stand here, there are students in jail on trumped up charges. We come here today with a great sense of misgiving” His address ended with a call to “get in this great social revolution sweeping our nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation…until the unfinished revolution of 1776 is complete.’”
—Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of The Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement
Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., Leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963. In the front row, from left are: Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); Walter P. Reuther, President, United Auto Workers Union; and Arnold Aronson, Secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Photo by Rowland Scherman for USIA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“The outpouring on August 28 of a quarter-million protesters of all races now seems evidence that King’s nonviolent strategy was bearing fruit. But, at the time, President Kennedy and his advisers feared the March on Washington would bring riot and bloodshed to the streets of the capital city. The worried administration assembled what may have been ‘the biggest peacetime military buildup in American history,’ Held in readiness was a force close to 20,000 troops and 30 helicopters and, to discourage looting, a policeman or National Guardsman at each corner near the Mall. But the marchers stayed peaceful, and not one of them got arrested.”
—Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, authors of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, 4th Edition
Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection. Public domain, per http://www.loc.gov/.
“Court decisions do matter, though often in unpredictable ways. But they cannot fundamentally transform a nation. The justices are too much products of their time and place to launch social revolutions. And, even if they had the inclination to do so, their capacity to coerce change is too heavily constrained. The justices were not tempted to invalidate school segregation until a time when half the nation supported such a ruling. They declined to aggressively enforce the Brown decision until a civil rights movement had made northern whites as keen to eliminate Jim Crow as southern whites were to preserve it. And while Brown did play a role in shaping both the civil rights movement and the violent response it received from southern whites, deep background forces ensured that the United States would experience a racial reform movement regardless of what the Supreme Court did or did not do.”
—Michael Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality
“While the barriers of racism remained formidable the struggle against these barriers had acquired new sources of strength and energy. Most obviously, the various organizations that made up the movement had a precedent of working together, building a coalition that crossed regional, racial, and ideological lines.”
—Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last to speak at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1963 America was still a segregated society. When he arose in that moment, he assumed the role of a biblical and American prophet and, like the Seers of old, imagined a new future for the nation.”
—Richard Lischer, author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America
Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“Lyndon took a lot of satisfaction in [the civil rights legislation], and so do I. And he thought, if you get the vote, it can go a long ways towards [African Americans] solving their own problems. If they have equal opportunities in education and jobs, that would go a long way. He was a person of vision. There are certain areas in the world that if he looked at them right now, he would take even more satisfaction in having gotten our civil rights laws and, indeed, a good deal of our customs in place and changed in the ‘60s.”
—Lady Bird Johnson from Michael Gillette’s Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History
Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“’We believe all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty,” Johnson said. ‘Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand–without rancor or hatred–how this happened, but it cannot continue…. Our constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I sign tonight forbids it.’”
—Robert Dallek, author of Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973
All quotes from the respective books.