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1963: a year that will live in history (and infamy)

The March on Washington was the high point

OW Staff Writer | 8/15/2013, midnight
The March on Washington is a half century old. The 50th anniversary of the march, virtually overshadowed by Dr. Martin ...

National Urban League, NAN, NAACP, others to mobilize anniversary march

Whitney M. Young Jr., president of the National Urban League from 1961-71, helped organize the March on Washington 50 years ago to demand jobs and freedom. As America prepares to mark the anniversary of the march, the National Urban League, under the leadership of Marc H. Morial, will once again mobilize citizens across the nation to gather in Washington, D.C. ,and continue the push for economic empowerment and justice.

The National Urban League is working in partnership with Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network; Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP; and Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the National Urban League and the Memorial Foundation, led by Harry E. Johnson, are hosting the Drum Majors for Justice Celebration on Friday, Aug. 23. The Urban League will also host a pre-march rally on Saturday, Aug. 24.

FRIDAY, Aug. 23

“Redeem the Dream Summit”

Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1000 H St. NW—Independence Ballroom

Doors Open at 8:30 a.m.—Open to the public

9-11 a.m.

“We Shall Not Be Moved: A Watershed Moment for a Movement.”

Civil rights legends and national leaders will look back on a day that brought more than 300,000 people together to hear leaders from the “Big 6” address a nation at a crossroads. Speakers will reflect on the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

11a.m.-12:30 p.m.

“The Next 50 Years: Freedom Forward” Panel Discussion

Contemporary leaders will discuss the legacy of the March on Washington in the new era of civil rights with its unprecedented challenges to hard-fought victories in affirmative action and voting rights. The panel will be an historic gathering that will chart the next 50 years of the movement.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) is a proud supporter of the Redeem the Dream Summit. Also known as the Black Press of America, the NNPA is a 69-year-old federation of more than 200 Black community newspapers across the United States.

2-4 p.m. (Freedom Plaza, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW)

“Drum Majors for Justice Future Leaders Celebration”

Celebrating young people as leaders in their own communities, this symbolic event will captivate the hearts and minds of young adults and encourage them to take up the mantle and step into their roles as Drum Majors for Justice. The event will also feature marching bands from local colleges and universities.

SATURDAY, Aug. 24

5:30-7:30 a.m. (Independence Ballroom)

“Urban League Pre-March Rally”

Urban League leaders, partners, friends and supporters will gather for a brief program, rally and sign-making session, before heading to the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

For more information, visit http://drummajors... or www.nul.org.

The March on Washington is a half century old. The 50th anniversary of the march, virtually overshadowed by Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, will arrive on Aug. 28, and will commemorate one of the most important events in American history.

Still, the speech remains one of the most recognized orations in modern history.

The 1963 march was not the first such Black movement planned on Washington. One other was set to go more than 20 years before the gloriously successful 1963 event.

Upset over government hiring policies that discriminated against Blacks, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin planned the first march on Washington in 1941. Discrimination in the defense industry was particularly galling since African Americans were expected to be available to defend the nation but were otherwise treated as second-class citizens.

In May, Randolph issued a “Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July 1, 1941.” The response was immediate. By June, the numbers of those who were expected to rally to Randolph’s call had exploded to 50,000 by some estimates and to 100,000 by others.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried desperately to get the organizers to call off the march, but Randolph was determined to see it through to dramatize the unfair treatment of Blacks by the government. When every attempt to end the march failed, Roosevelt relented and issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) and barring discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus. As a result of this action, Randolph called off the proposed march. By the end of 1944, nearly 2 million Blacks were employed in defense work. But the commission went out of existence in 1946, about five years later.

“As Blacks faced continuing discrimination in the postwar years, the March on Washington group met annually to reiterate Blacks’ demands for economic equality,” according to History.com. “The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s transformed the political climate, and in 1963, Black leaders began to plan a new March on Washington, designed specifically to advocate passage of the Civil Rights Act then stalled in Congress. Chaired again by A. Philip Randolph and organized by his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, this new March for Jobs and Freedom was expected to attract 100,000 participants.

“President John F. Kennedy showed as little enthusiasm for the march as had Roosevelt, but this time the Black leaders would not be dissuaded. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their long-standing rivalry, Black and White groups across the country were urged to attend, and elaborate arrangements were made to ensure a harmonious event. The growing disillusion among some civil rights workers was reflected in a speech planned by John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but in order to preserve the atmosphere of good will, leaders of the march persuaded Lewis to omit his harshest criticisms of the Kennedy administration.”

The year 1963 was rife with racial strife and demonstrations. It was a year of attack dogs and fire hoses and arrests. But it was also a year that saw several civil rights groups working together to improve the lives of African Americans politically, economically and socially. It was the year that Dr. King wrote his now-famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

The letter was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight White religious leaders of the South who called his campaign of nonviolent protests, “unwise and untimely,” and had urged him not to intervene in Alabama’s segregationist policies. In the letter, Dr. King stated that it was an individual’s moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

My Dear Fellow Clergymen,

While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas . . . . But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some 85 affiliate organizations all across the South . . . . Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented.

“The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations, all of which generally had different approaches and different agendas,” wrote historian Shmuel Ross. “The ‘Big Six’ organizers were James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march on Washington.

“The stated demands of the march were the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; a major public-works program to provide jobs; the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring; a $2 an hour minimum wage; and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a Black majority.

“President Kennedy originally discouraged the march, for fear that it might make the legislature vote against civil rights laws in reaction to a perceived threat. Once it became clear that the march would go on, however, he supported it.

“While various labor unions supported the march, the AFL-CIO remained neutral.

“Outright opposition came from two sides. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, were obviously not in favor of any event supporting racial equality. On the other hand, the march was also condemned by some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the ‘Farce on Washington,’ and members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.”

All the protests about the march came to no avail. On Aug. 28, 1963, history was made when somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 marchers converged near the Lincoln Memorial.

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Civil rights leader Andrew Young, left, and others on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel point in the direction where gunshots came from after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Other historic happenings in 1963:

• House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 presided over by Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), chairman of both the full committee and the subcommittee, began hearings on civil rights proposals. In total, there were 22 days of hearings between May 8 and Aug. 2.

• According to the Justice Department, in the 10 weeks before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests. “Birmingham became the moment of truth,” argued organizer Rustin.

• King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and African Americans in Birmingham, Ala., began daily demonstrations and sit-ins to protest discrimination at lunch counters and in public facilities. Over three weeks, the demonstrations resulted in the arrest of 400 protesters, including King. The Birmingham confrontation was the first protracted demonstration to be carried live and nationwide on television. At the time, Newsweek published a survey in July of that year showing that 40 percent of African Americans interviewed had taken part in a civil rights protest.

• President Kennedy submitted a bill to guarantee Blacks access to public accommodations, allow the government to file suit to desegregate schools, allow federal programs to be cut off in any area where discrimination was practiced in their applications, strengthen existing machinery to prevent employment discrimination by government contractors, and establish a community relations service to help local communities resolve racial disputes.

• President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22 at 12:30 p.m. (CST) in Dallas. Kennedy had endorsed the March on Washington.

• The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, by members of Ku Klux Klan as an act of racially motivated terrorism. The explosion at the African American church, which killed four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair—marked a turning point in the U.S. 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

• A campaign in Birmingham was a movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to bring attention to the integration of African Americans in Birmingham. Led by King and others, the spring 1963 campaign of nonviolent direct actions culminated in widely publicized confrontations between Black youth and White civic authorities, and eventually led the municipal government to change the city’s discriminatory laws.

• Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary for the NAACP, was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, on June 12, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech in support of civil rights. As a veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests, as well as numerous works of art, music, and film.

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Myrlie Evers kisses her slain husband as her brother-in-law Charles Evers looks on.

As the nation remembers the various events that happened in this seminal year, there are a number of activities planned.

Aug. 27:

“The Conference on Civil Rights: Marching Forward by Looking Back” will be held from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Washington Court Hotel, 535 New Jersey Ave., N.W. Eight panels will address subjects ranging from the concerns of youth to models of economic and political freedom.

Aug. 28:

President Barack Obama has chosen to speak to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

His speech will come after a “March for Jobs and Justice” that begins at 8:15 a.m. at 600 New Jersey Ave., N.W., and ends at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear the president speak from the very spot where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago.