Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Untold Story of the March on Washington

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Untold Story of the March on Washington

Article excerpt

This month, Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Most people connect the 1963 march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s presentation of his vision for a colorblind America in his "I Have a Dream" speech. But few know the story of the march, which drew a staggering quarter-million people to the nation's capital, according to William R Jones, author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton and Company, 2013). Though King's soaring oration has been woven into the memory of that hot day in August, his speech was the least "attentive to the specific goals and demands of the mobilization," writes Jones.

In a well-documented and compelling re-examination of the historic march and the events surrounding it, Jones, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, centers on the march's goals of jobs and freedom, and traces the political intersection of Black labor organizers and the Civil Rights Movement. Much of his book focuses on the work of A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the March on Washington.

"I was surprised to find how central Black trade unionists were to [the march]," Jones says, adding that he was researching a different book when he came across the topic for The March on Washington. He was reading the papers of Richard Parrish, a leader of the Negro American Labor Council, one of many labor groups founded by Randolph and the organization that called for the 1963 March on Washington.

"There was a long history of organizing and networking that went into building this march," explains Jones. "The popular memory is King said, 'Meet me,' and a quarter of a million people showed up."

The Negro American Labor Council laid the groundwork for the march. But the story is only one of many little-known facts about the march and its labor legacy. The 1963 gathering was not the first March on Washington. In 1941, as Americans watched World War II from the sidelines, Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to storm Washington to attempt to secure jobs for African-Americans in the booming defense industry.

Fearful of a political calamity as his administration primed the economy for war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceded to some of Randolph's demands, including an executive order banning discrimination in defense jobs. As a result, the first March on Washington was canceled. However, the March on Washing ton Movement, with its focus on securing a fair employment law, continued to monitor companies' compliance with Roosevelt's executive order. …

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