Famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not plan on saying “I have a dream” at the March on Washington. The majority of his speeches had no prepared text. He liked to improvise on stock themes and images, but knowing the march on Aug. 28, 1963, would bring the largest audience of his career, King decided to script his remarks beforehand. Those remarks, which you hear in the address' first 10 minutes, are a little subdued, and when King turned away from his papers to announce, off the cuff, "I still have a dream," he was simply crossing over to his rightful genre, which was not oratory but preaching. For the rest he relied on his instincts as well as his supreme command of rhythm and metaphor. Broadcast on all major networks, the speech was the first time white America was given a long, unbiased look at King, without partisan or editorial filters. President John F. Kennedy spoke for most when he remarked to his staff, "He's damn good."
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Popular memory of the March on Washington is confined to the five minutes King spent describing his dream. So rich is the moment in symbolic overtones, with King standing beneath the marmoreal gaze of Lincoln a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that little about the march is actually known. At the time many were convinced it would result in violence, as it was thought that masses of African-Americans could not gather without rioting. On that day, the city of Washington cut off liquor sales, and the major league Senators postponed their home game. Also forgotten, as William P. Jones writes in a new book, "The March on Washington," is "that it was a march 'For Jobs and Freedom,' and that it aimed not just to end racial segregation and discrimination in the South but also to ensure that Americans of all races had access to quality education, affordable housing, and jobs that paid a living wage."
Those words, jobs and freedom, illustrate what made the march such a remarkable event, for it represented the confluence of, if not two separate movements, then two spheres of activism. One was predominantly Northern, urban and focused on economic redress, on securing better jobs for blacks as well as access to unions and apprenticeships in skilled trades. The other was Southern, rooted in the church and moving to end segregation and the suppression of voting rights. The latter narrative is the one we know, the one historians have traditionally favored, in part out of a fascination with King, who can figure in history like a monolith, obscuring everyone and everything around him. Jones casts the march as a triumph of the black labor movement and affiliated grassroots efforts. Attended by more than 200,000, the demonstration, he says, "may also have been the largest gathering of union members in U.S. history."
Jones' book is not the liveliest account, as it is devoted to the slow grind of the freedom movement, to committee meetings, plenary sessions, letter writing campaigns and the like. Still, "The March on Washington" provides a significant addition to our understanding of the civil rights movement, broadly construed.
The idea for the march dates to 1941. Europe was at war and the United States was mobilizing for one, yet blacks were largely excluded from the surging defense industry, denied employment by companies producing aircraft and ships. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the most powerful African-American in organized labor, called for a march on the nation's capital, in cooperation with the NAACP and National Council of Negro Women. "Such a pilgrimage of 10,000 Negroes," Randolph said, "would wake up and shock Official Washington as it has never been shocked before."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed. He first tried convincing Randolph that the march would be a tactical mistake, but when Randolph refused to back down, the president issued an executive order requiring defense contractors to refrain from discrimination in their hiring.
At that point Randolph did cancel the march, to the dismay of many, though a March on Washington movement was born once it became clear there would be only piecemeal or gradual implementation of Roosevelt's order. Randolph urged the black community to follow Gandhi's example of nonviolent protest; there were sit-ins to integrate diners — and this, remember, was in 1943, not '63. Jones shows that much we thought to be intrinsic to the 1960s movement had earlier origins. And he reminds us that the movement's later victories were not miracles wrought by King but depended on organizers who had been toiling locally for decades.
The bus boycott that began in Montgomery in 1955 following Rosa Parks' arrest could not have been sustained, says Jones, without "a remarkable network of black activists." This network included E.D. Nixon, a member of Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and groups such as the Women's Political Council, which had been protesting the humiliations of Montgomery's segregated bus system for years.
Jones' willingness to highlight the work of men and women who have been overlooked by history is admirable, but at times he ventures too far in support of his thesis. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was trapped in the Senate by a Southern filibuster, the Negro American Labor Council proposed a national work stoppage in protest. "It is not clear what impact the threat of a general strike had on the filibuster," says Jones, "but it seems to have encouraged senators to resolve the impasse over the civil rights bill." Read that sentence again and try to intuit its logic. Here Jones commits the same fallacy he derides other historians for. Credit black labor with every development in the civil rights movement, and your book may seem different from the rest, but really it's not. Gone is the emphasis on King, but it's still history with a monolith in the center. It just has a different name.
In the sections of the book in which he does not stretch himself to such a tenuous degree, Jones succeeds in giving us a fresh picture of the movement. In his pages we understand it not as a sudden flashpoint or emanation but rather, as Ralph Ellison defined it once, as a "slow development in time, in history, and in group discipline and organizational technique." One of the main accomplishments of the March on Washington was that it made all of America aware of this development.
Fifty years on, it is fitting that we commemorate the occasion, though we should also take time to ponder how dated the march truly feels. In his own speech that afternoon, a couple hours before King took the stage, Randolph counted among the pressing issues of his day not just those of race but "of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of social security, of federal aid to education." Move that list to a television spot in 2013, and no one would bat an eye. Freedom is a constant struggle, goes the refrain of an old song. Thanks to "The March on Washington," we now have a fuller sense of the long history and epic dimension of that struggle.
Benjamin Hedin, who has written for The New Yorker, Slate and other publications, is at work on a book about the civil rights movement, forthcoming from City Lights.
"The March on Washington"
By William P. Jones, W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $26.95.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun