Lessons from the 1963 March on Washington and the movement we need today
On Aug. 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands participated in the massive March on Washington, which many call the high point of the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement radically transformed society, but any honest appraisal will admit that we still have not achieved its central demands: jobs, freedom and equality. And so, 47 years later, we are still marching.
The speech that was not given
The March on Washington is best known for the “I Have a Dream” speech, but today it may be more useful to remember the speech that was not given.
John Lewis and other youth activists of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee had drafted a speech for that day that was heavily censored for its “immoderate” tone. In its original form, it began, “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.”
Calling the drafted civil rights bill “too little, too late,” it made the point that, “There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.” On the basics of economic security, he asked, “What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in a home whose income is $100,000 a year?”
Explaining that a “serious revolution” was “at hand,” the original speech warned against all attempts to “take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts.” The speech made clear that both the Republican and Democratic parties were filled with “cheap political leaders” with no real interest in overturning the social and economic exploitation facing the Black masses.
The content of this speech was too explosive, too dynamic and revolutionary, for those who feared it would alienate the Black struggle’s half-way “friends” in Washington. Although its analysis remains relevant, it is a sad fact that many would oppose such a speech today for the very same reasons.
The unfinished Civil Rights revolution
The heroism of the Civil Rights Movement produced real results. Jim Crow apartheid was overthrown. African Americans in the South won the right to vote. In every corner of the country, U.S. society was forced to come face to face with the inequality and injustice on which it was built. It inspired a new phase of radicalism and organizing both inside and outside the Black community. The movement initiated a decades-long challenge to the racist attitudes held by a large section of the white population.
Without the gains of that movement, it would be impossible to think of a Black president. There are African Americans in every level of government administration, from housing to education to the Justice Department. There are now also Black governors, and lots of Black mayors. There are Black judges, police chiefs and officers, prison guards and wardens. While certainly discrimination persists, there are also quite a few Black faces in high places in the corporate world.
But what about the rest of us? Today, real unemployment is well above the headline number of 9.5 percent. When you include all those who have given up looking for work, it is roughly twice as high. There are in fact over 30 million unemployed people nationwide. For African Americans, the unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites. For Latinos, it is scarcely any better.
The rates of incarceration, tied to the never-ending police harassment of Black and Latino youth, have not gone down in recent decades. Quite the opposite. The education system is still underfunded. Landlords are as relentless today as ever before. Public housing is still dilapidated and inadequate. Even those who have played by the rules and are attempting to get a college education are facing rising tuitions and racist admissions policies. Millions of African Americans bought houses only to face foreclosure because of the predatory banks.
Only the masses can bring about radical change
In the speech that was not given in 1963, Lewis asserted: “If any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. … We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
That has to be our attitude today, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. In 1963, Birmingham youth, from elementary to high school, marched in defiance of “respectable” opinion—Black and white—and faced dogs and firehoses. They filled the jails and cattle pens by the thousands day after day, and in the process helped bring segregation to an end.
The Black masses, and progressive people of all backgrounds, knew in 1963 that they could not sit back and hope the president would do the right thing. They took action that forced the government to prove which side it was on, whether it was friend or enemy. It was against this backdrop that the March on Washington came together.
It is in that spirit that we need to be marching and organizing once again. But as we march for “freedom,” let’s be clear about what “freedom” means. The oppression of Black people in this country was not just about lacking the right to vote, so getting that right did not make us free.
Towards their last days, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X questioned whether Black people could ever be free under capitalism. They saw that the system had been built on exploitation—and thus we need a new system.
Glenn Beck and the Tea Party distort Dr. King’s politics and the Black Freedom Movement as if they simply were about “individual liberty.” They dishonestly talk about a “color-blind society” to oppose affirmative action and the very social programs that Dr. King championed. They oppose labor unions, while Dr. King went to his death supporting the right of workers to organize and fight for a fair wage, seeing this as a starting point in a campaign to eliminate poverty.
The Tea Party, composed of racists and fools (often both), have a capitalist definition of “freedom.” For them, it is the freedom to starve, to be evicted, to live without health care and work a whole lifetime without guaranteed retirement.
Beck uses the same anti-communist rhetoric today that the ruling class used in the 1960s to make the Black movement afraid to talk about economic justice. But despite those intimidation tactics, the Black masses engaged in a vibrant debate over tactics, strategy and what it would take to win real equality. We need that same debate today, and the existence of a Black president should make it sharper, not less pressing.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation is fighting for a system in which the wealth of society belongs to those who produce it, the working class, and is used in a planned and sustainable way for the benefit of all. In place of greed, domination and exploitation, we stand for solidarity and cooperation between all peoples. On a day-to-day level, we are out in the streets fighting against war, budget cuts, police brutality, racism and bigotry. Drawing inspiration from the heroic struggles of the 1960s, we are trying to build a movement of poor and working-class people of all nationalities today—and we invite you to join us.