Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous moments in US history, the 1963 March on Washington that helped win civil rights. But while King and his “I have a dream” speech are universally known, the origins and organizer of the march have largely been written out of history.
Mainstream history presents the civil rights movement as either a spontaneous outburst or a campaign entirely directed by King, a supposedly simple dreamer whose politics were frozen in 1963. The Civil Rights movement is presented as a single issue struggle—with no connection to anti-war, labour, gay or radical activists—which culminated in the March on Washington and civil rights legislation that supposedly completed the black freedom struggle. In response, radical historians have often dismissed the March on Washington and its organizers; Howard Zinn’s masterful People History of the United States described the march as a “friendly assemblage” that was highjacked by the Democrats, and never mentions its main organizer Bayard Rustin (pictured behind King).
But remembering the origins and organizers of the March on Washington restores its connections to anti-war and labour movements, to anti-Stalinist socialists and to gay activists who struggled before Stonewall. This rich history, including its strengths and weaknesses, is important both to understand how the civil rights victory was won, and why King’s dream remains deferred.
The idea of a march on Washington started with A Philip Randolph, a socialist and trade union activist, who organized the first predominantly black union—the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1941 he used the threat of a march on Washington to force Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries.
In the 1940s Randolph joined forces with Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Quaker who joined the Communist Party in Harlem in the 1930s—when the organization still had a strong record of fighting racism and inequality. When Stalinism purged Communist Parties of their politics and dropped anti-racist struggles in order to support the war, Rustin left the party to work alongside Randolph and AJ Muste. Muste was a Christian pacifist and labour activist who founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), taking pacifism and civil disobedience to fight racism.
After going to jail for resisting WWII—where he was persecuted for being black and gay—Rustin joined CORE, the War Resisters League and Ella Baker (another unsung hero of the civil rights movement) to organize multiracial teams to challenge bus segregation—a precursor to the Freedom Rides. As Rustin wrote later, “That period of 8 years of continuously doing this prepared for the 1960s revolution. I do not believe Montgomery would have been possible nor successful except for the long experience people had about reading about sitting in buses and getting arrested, so that people had become used to hearing this.” In 1948 Congress debated peacetime conscription, and Randolph and Rustin began organizing another March on Washington—which pressured Truman to desegregate the armed forces.
One of the main reasons Rustin has been written out of history is because of homophobia. In the early 1950s he was arrested for “perversion”, fired from CORE and forever kept in the shadows of movements despite his central role. As his biographer wrote, “The arrest trailed Rustin for many years afterwards. It severely restricted the public roles he was allowed to assume. Though he fought his way back from the sidelines, he did so at a price. As both the peace and civil rights movements grew dramatically over the next decade, as a philosophy of nonviolence became familiar to millions of Americans, Rustin’s influence was everywhere. Yet he remained always in the background, his figure shadowy and blurred, his importance masked. At any moment, his sexual history might erupt into consciousness. Sometimes it happened through the design of enemies to the causes for which he fought, sometimes through the machinations of personal rivals, sometimes through the nervous anxieties of movement comrades. But underneath it all was the unexamined, because as yet unnamed, homophobia that permeated mid-century American society.”
As the documentary Before Stonewall reminds us, many queer activists were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, which became a training ground for the Gay Liberation Movement that began in 1969.
When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat and King began organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin went on behalf of the War Resisters League to help. His account humanizes King, who was not born a leader but developed during the course of the struggle: “The fact of the matter is, when I got to Montgomery, Dr. King had very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out. He had not been prepared for the job either tactically, strategically, or in his understanding of nonviolence. The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest.”
Rustin mentored King, connected his struggle with campuses and unions across the country, helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and organized its first action: the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage that mobilized 20,000 to Washington. Meanwhile, Ella Baker helped launch the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), when sit-ins started exploding across the South.
In 1963, Randolph and Rustin began organizing a Washington on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, connecting the fight for civil rights with economic justice. As Rustin explained: “Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodation will be of limited extent and duration as long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists. When a racial disparity in unemployment has been firmly established in the course of a century, the change-over to ‘equal opportunities’ does not wipe out the cumulative handicaps of the negro worker. The dynamic that has motivated negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.” This perspective brought together the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, SCC, the National Urban League, religious leaders and the United Auto Workers. While the AFL-CIO labour bureaucracy stayed away, labour activists across the country mobilized—including steelworkers, ladies garment workers, packinghouse workers, electrical workers, and labour councils. On August 28, 1963 a quarter of a million people marched on Washington, and forced the Democrats to provide civil rights legislation.
Poverty, racism and militarism
But as Zinn explained, the corporate Democrats moved quickly to smother the broader project. Rustin was co-opted and called for a shift “from protest to politics”, subordinating the movements in order to placate the Democrats—while his elevation of multiracial non-violence from tactic to principle led him to condemn Black Power and the Vietnamese resistance. But as his biographer noted, “the pupil surpassed the teacher”. King, rescuing Rustin's politics and continuing to learn from the struggle, condemned the Vietnam War and the "giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation", planned a Poor People’s March on Washington, and went to support striking sanitation workers—where he was killed.
Fifty years after King dreamed of a day when people would “not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character,” Trayvon Martin was murdered for being black—while Chelsea Manning has been persecuted for speaking out against a war that killed a million Iraqis. With 100,000 marking the 50th anniversary of the march, many are rediscovering its radical roots—connecting civil rights to broader struggles and committing themselves to King’s words from 1967 that remains relevant today: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."