Teaching the real history of the 1963 March on Washington

3. The march’s principal organizer was Bayard Rustin.?This year President Obama will posthumously award Bayard Rustin the Medal of Freedom, however teaching about Rustin complicates the simplistic Civil Rights narrative offered to students by corporate history textbooks. Rustin was a gay pacifist with a long history of organizing, but despite his record of achievements, homophobia led to him being denied the title of national director of the march—technically, he served under Randolph.

Rustin closed the march with a list of demands and had everyone pledge “that I will not relax until victory is won.” He was a complicated character who remained in organized labor and became a mentor to many, especially to younger activists in the burgeoning gay rights movement. At the same time, he refused to later condemn the Vietnam War and was critical of the Black Power Movement.

4. The march was controversial on many levels within the Black Freedom Movement.?Individuals, such as Malcolm X, were critical of it, albeit in a contradictory manner, claiming that it would not amount to anything. And there were those within the march who, like then-SNCC chairman John Lewis, wanted a more militant posture.

5. The economic situation for African Americans was not addressed in any fundamental manner in the aftermath of the march.?There were periodic improvements, but the crisis that Randolph and the NALC saw brewing in the early 1960s took on the features of a catastrophe by the mid to late 1970s, a fact that we have been living with ever since. Divorcing “civil rights” from economic justice is a feature common to mainstream approaches to history, including those found in school curricula.

6. The entirety of Dr. King’s August 28, 1963 address should be read.?What comes across is something very different from the morally righteous and tame “I Have a Dream!” clips and textbook soundbites usually offered around the time of Dr. King’s birthday. In fact, the speech is a militant and audacious indictment of Jim Crow segregation and the situation facing African Americans.

To truly honor the legacy of this anniversary, teachers should have students compare the King of the actual speech with the King from the clips. It would also be useful to have students read and discuss some of the day’s other speeches. For example, in Randolph’s opening speech he proclaimed that those gathered before him represented “the advance guard of a massive moral revolution” aimed at creating a society where “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.” This is a sentiment that we never hear about that day.

This 50th anniversary of the March on Washington also offers an opportunity to connect the issues and experiences of 1963 with current realities. In 2013, black workers have been largely abandoned in most discussions about race and civil rights. As National Black Worker Center Project founder Steven Pitts has repeatedly pointed out, with the economic restructuring that has destroyed key centers of the black working class, such as Detroit and St. Louis, much of the economic development that has emerged has either avoided the black worker altogether or limited the role of black workers to the most menial positions. Thus, unemployment for blacks remains more than double that of whites and hovers around Depression levels in many communities.

We can all do justice to this anniversary by asking the right questions and providing the actual historical context in which the 1963 March unfolded. More so, we can also offer, as Rustin asked the marchers in 1963, our “personal commitment to the struggle for jobs and freedom for Americans. . .and the achievement of social peace through social justice. How do you pledge?”

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an editorial board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com and a senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press) and ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions (Beacon Press).

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