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The deep impact of March on Washington

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

Somewhere in the sea of more than 200,000 on Aug. 28, 1963, stood Mildred Reese. Like all those others, she had journeyed to the nation’s capital eager to participate in what is widely regarded as the greatest demonstration of human rights in U.S. history and arguably one of the country’s most influential rallies – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But in 1963, Mildred Reese was 45. She had already lived a full and accomplished life – and a fairly remarkable one for a black woman. She had already excelled in two occupations – first as a social worker and then as an educator. She had started a shoe and clothing bank for students in New Orleans parish schools in 1949. She was already a world traveler – she and her husband would visit 25 countries before he died. She was actively engaged civically and politically.

And she counted as her good friend, Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women.

On that August day, Height would be one of the few women who would grace the podium, standing just steps away from the Rev. Martin Luther King as he mesmerized the crowd with his stirring “I have a dream” speech.

Reese, now 95 and an author, philanthropist and humanitarian, remembers that day well. But she also remembers all that led up to it.

There was lots of planning and nothing was left to chance. “They were organized,” she told me. “They made you vow that you weren’t going to be violent. They didn’t want you participating if you didn’t think you could be nonviolent.”

Critics challenged the wisdom of the rally precisely because of the prospects for violence. But the march would garner mostly praise worldwide – sometimes with incredulity. Those assembled were armed only with signs as they pressed for justice and fairness, standing in 80-degree temperatures that some said felt like sweltering heat in the mass of bodies.

Many will celebrate this seminal event next week. The 50th anniversary falls on a Wednesday, just as the actual event did. But to appreciate what the march meant beyond the grand spectacle and King’s inspiring and riveting words requires a knowledge and understanding of what occurred before and after the march.

Consider:

The march actually had been in the works for 22 years. A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the first African-American to serve on the executive council of the American Federation of Labor, had threatened in 1941 to stage a march of 100,000 on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense industries and military service. So powerful was his threat that President Franklin Roosevelt summoned him to the White House to find a way to stave off the protest. Randolph stood firm and a week later, Roosevelt capitulated on part of the demands, issuing an executive order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee to end discrimination in defense industries.

Randolph called off the march but continued to press for an end to discrimination in the military service. After Harry Truman became president, Randolph met with him in 1948 and threatened a mass civil disobedience campaign. Truman too capitulated and issued an executive order five months after that meeting calling for integration in the military.

So, it’s not at all surprising that Randolph, 74 years old in 1963, would be tapped to lead the March on Washington, and that his mentee, Bayard Rustin, would be its organizer.

Randolph was steadily crusading against the discrimination and inequality that was still prevalent in America, saying its unfairness and brutality could be seen on TV as the media captured scenes of violence against nonviolent protesters throughout the South. A mass protest was urged and this time meetings between civil rights activists and the White House – President John F. Kennedy’s administration – failed to derail it.

The high-point that day is memorably the speech Martin Luther King gave. But organizers met with President Kennedy afterward, and though Kennedy was assassinated just months later, the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be the result.

Still, just a day after the march, Randolph would declare, and King would concur: “We will need to continue demonstrations” and they did on smaller scales. And just a year after the Voting Rights Act passed, Randolph, Rustin and King released a document that encapsulated the march’s big goal, economic justice. Called the “Freedom Budget,” it focused on specific strategies to abolish poverty and provide good jobs for all Americans – not just black Americans.

Indeed, that part of the march’s title was intentional, organizers said. They positioned jobs before freedom in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to indicate that they felt freedom could not be obtained without first removing obstacles to being well employed.

King would write the foreword to the plan, noting that civil rights had achieved important victories in courts and in legislation but there was a long way to go. “The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone. We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century educational system for all,” he wrote.

The themes have a familiar ring for the 21st century as well. And some economists and sociologists have been focusing attention on the little-known document as a worthwhile blueprint for addressing growing inequalities. The “Freedom Budget” targets equitable tax and money policies, updated Social Security and welfare programs, affordable medical care and adequate education for all, clean water and air, decent housing for every American family, adequate wages as well as full employment and abolition of poverty.

As people reminisce and pay homage to the March on Washington, it’s good to remember that in many ways it was more than a single event. It had a long birth, and is having an even longer afterlife. After all these years, it still has profound impact.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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