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 ...

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.”