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Revolutionary Road, Partial Victory

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Paul Le Blanc, professor of history at La Roche College, has been active in various movements for social change since 1965. His books include Work and Struggle: Voices from U.S. Labor Radicalism; Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience;  A Short History of the U.S. Working Class; and A Freedom Budget for All Americans (with Michael D. Yates).

The year 1963 was a high-water mark for the civil rights movement—the year of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew hundreds of thousands to march for civil rights. But the march also set the stage for the opening of a what was perceived as second, far more radical, phase of the civil rights strategy, developed by the March’s organizers. This led to the development, over a three-year period, of the proposed Freedom Budget for All Americans. It projected nothing less than the elimination of all poverty and unemployment in the United States before the end of the 1970s.

A Frightening Left-Wing “Conspiracy”

Given its now iconic place in the history of the twentieth century, it is all too easy to forget the intense hostility (and fear) that powerful forces felt regarding the 1963 March on Washington. The prestigious Herald Tribune voiced these fears when it editorialized: “If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capitalthey will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of uncontained violence if Congress doesn’t deliver. This is the kind of threat that can make men of pride, which most Congressmen are, turn stubborn.”1

Even greater hostility emanated from J. Edgar Hoover and his Federal Bureau of Investigation. A Justice Department lawyer of the time later commented: “Everything you have read about the FBI, how it was determined to destroy the movement, is true.” Accounts indicating that “the Bureau and its Director were openly racist,” and that “the Bureau set out to destroy black leaders simply because they were black leaders,” have been carefully investigated and frankly corroborated by historian David Garrow, who adds: “The Bureau was strongly conservative, peopled with many right-wingers, and thus it selected people and organizations on the left end of the political spectrum for special and unpleasant attention.”2

Pulitzer-Prize journalist Russell Baker has commented that Hoover was “a terrifying old tyrant whose eyes and ears were everywhere,” who explained to a skeptical Attorney General Robert Kennedy that “the brains of black people were twenty percent smaller than whites,” and who gloated—once tapes were later secured about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “amatory” indiscretions—that “this will destroy the burrhead.” Since its emergence in the 1950s, Hoover had been warning that “the Negro situation is being exploited fully and continuously by Communists on a national scale.” FBI activities—in part reflecting such attitudes and in part reflecting a need to find justification for continued funding—found ample justification for investigating, spying on, and at times attempting to disrupt or discredit the activities of protest groups and leaders (such as key figures in the movement’s activist wing like King and Bayard Rustin).3

“Bureau officers exchanged information about African American protest with local police in the South,” notes Rustin biographer John D’Emilio. “The practice sustained an atmosphere in which Southern sheriffs who suppressed demonstrations knew they had friends in the Bureau, while FBI agents saw the protection of civil rights activists as outside their mission.” Over a thousand civil rights activists (including Rustin) were tagged as security threats by the FBI. “With the knowledge it secretly acquired, it could disrupt events, sow dissension in organizations, ruin relationships, and destroy the credibility of individuals.”4

Hoover did what he could to discredit the 1963 March with fears of violence and Communist infiltration. Terming South Carolina segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond “one of our strongest bulwarks in the Congress,” the FBI shared with him a tremendous amount of information about key March organizer Rustin’s explicit radicalism, homosexuality, and former membership in the Young Communist League—as well as a considerable accumulation of negative judgments about the projected march. Thurmond used this to launch a full-scale attack against the approaching March on the Senate floor. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, fed similar information, viewed the upcoming March as “very, very badly organized,” with “many groups of Communists trying to get in.”5

As it turned out, the March was brilliantly organized, and participation was incredibly broad and “respectable.” The element of truth in Hoover’s vicious interpretation of the March, however, is that central to the entire effort was an influential core of socialists who sought, as they themselves more than once asserted, a revolutionary transformation of society—although they also seemed committed to a nonviolent revolution.

Socialist Origins

The earliest beginnings of the March on Washington arose among socialist activists clustered around A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the country’s foremost African-American trade union leader.

It is likely that the idea was never far from the consciousness of Randolph himself (who in the 1940s had projected four different marches on Washington, and cancelled them each time). These earlier threatened-and-cancelled marches had yielded significant gains, such as a Presidential Executive Order eliminating segregation and racist policies in war-related industries before the Second World War and the elimination of racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces as the Cold War was beginning to develop. He had been denounced in 1919 as one of “the two most dangerous Negroes in the United States” by Attorney General A. Mitchell (the other being Randolph’s friend and fellow socialist Chandler Owen).6 And Randolph never abandoned the basic Marxism that he had absorbed from the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. He consistently emphasized the link between racial justice and economic justice.

Over the years Rustin worked closely with Randolph, whose political orientation he fully shared. He was also, off and on, a close and trusted advisor to King. After leaving the Communist movement, Rustin had become a radical pacifist. He associated himself first with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and then the War Resisters League. He was later a founder of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), led by fellow socialist James Farmer.

Indeed, from the late 1940s onward King himself, as Clayborne Carson has observed, adhered to a version of Social Gospel Christianity which “incorporated socialist ideas as well as anti-colonial sentiments spurred by the African independence movements.” Carson emphasizes that “the works of Karl Marx had reinforced his [King’s] long-held concern ‘about the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty.’”7 In all of this, he shared common ground with Rustin and Randolph.

Rustin became a magnet for radicalizing young activists in the late 1950s. As Stokely Carmichael (later a key leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) recalled: “Bayard was one of the first I had been in direct contact with [of whom] I could really say, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ He was like superman, hooking socialism up with the black movement, organizing blacks.”8 In 1956 socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington introduced two socialist teenagers, Tom Kahn and Rachelle Horowitz, to the charismatic Rustin. Kahn and Horowitz soon became key figures in the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL, the youth group of the Socialist Party), resulting in a set of political partnerships that would last for many years and would intersect with SNCC and CORE.

In 1958 there had been a merger into the Socialist Party of the Independent Socialist League, a political group led by Max Shachtman, a one-time aide to the exiled Russian Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.* The merger had revitalized the Socialist Party and, especially, its youth group. These were, in the words of historian Maurice Isserman, “people with political skills, a sense of mission, and a willingness to devote long hours to the movement.” As Michael Harrington later recalled, the new recruits included “some of the most important militants of the second generation of the SNCC leadership—Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, and Ed Brown [older brother of H. Rap Brown],” among others. Their discussions took up such questions as “why our various struggles would have to converge someday into the battle for socialism itself.”9

Looking back on the YPSL involvement in the civil rights movement from the standpoint of 1980, Kahn commented that “YPSLs were the backbone of the 1958 and 1959 Youth Marches for Integrated Schools,” adding that they “helped staff numerous defense committees, played an important role in CORE, participated in direct action projects, marched in the South, and went to jail.” He concluded: “Out of our efforts, in large part, came the 1963 March on Washington.” In all of this, Rustin and Kahn became close friends, co-thinkers, and for a time lovers. But their particular brand of socialist politics was the target of hostile characterization, in 1963, by Stanley Levison (himself a former Communist, an erstwhile friend of Rustin’s, and a close advisor to King): “Tom Kahn is the Lenin of the Socialist Partyand Bayard is absolutely manipulated by him. This was Bayard’s downfall years ago.” Stokely Carmichael and other young activists saw things quite differently from Levison’s contemptuous remark: “Tom was a shrewd strategist with by far the most experience of us all in radical political organizing, having, as it were, studied with Rustin.”10

“The Deepest Implications”

In 1960 the twenty-two-year-old Kahn produced the influential pamphlet, The Unfinished Revolution. It offered a vivid, passionate description of the activist upsurge of that year, but also pushed for a broadened strategic orientation capable of bringing about positive reforms—and with this a fundamental power shift in society. “The Negro without a vote and without a union card has little to say about his wages and is up against a take-it-or leave-it proposition,” he wrote. “In addition, the presence of a politically disenfranchised and economically uprooted Negro population represented a threat to the poor whites because if the latter sought to improve their economic status, their bosses could always threaten to turn them out and give the job to Negroes who, in desperation, would work for less.” He envisioned civil rights forces and struggles associated with Randolph and King joining with unions to help lay the basis for a mass political party of labor, “committed to the fight of the Negro for equality, of the workingman for improved living conditions, of the farmer for the fair share of his produce.”11

The pamphlet was graced by a laudatory foreword by Socialist Party icon Norman Thomas, but more significantly, another foreword was written by James Lawson (a militant black minister leading the non-violent struggle in Nashville, and a close ally of King), who commented: “In the heat of the struggle, it often happens that the deepest implications of a mass movement are not understood. This pamphlet, written by a young man who has worked on the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools and in a number of other important civil rights projects, makes a unique contribution in filling this void.”12

One of the key elements in the orientation of this dynamic cluster of socialists was the link they saw, and always emphasized, between the struggles for civil rights and economic justice. This was reinforced in 1962 when Michael Harrington’s The Other America became a best-seller. He stunned thousands of readers by his informative and sensitively written account of “the other America” in which between 40 and 50 million people lived in poverty, close to a quarter of the U.S. population. What he had to say had powerful impact:

To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes. That does not change the fact that tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care.13

In the autumn of 1962, left-wing union organizer Stanley Aronowitz quietly surveyed labor circles on Rustin’s behalf. The purpose was to gauge support for a mass demonstration, focused on the issue of jobs, to be held in Washington, D.C. during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation. In December 1962 discussions between Randolph and Rustin crystallized on the conception of a mass action in Washington, D.C. to advance this aspect of the civil rights strategy. The old trade unionist asked Rustin to develop a detailed proposal. The experienced organizer reached out to some of his closest young Socialist Party comrades to develop the proposal—Kahn and Norman Hill, the latter a seasoned African-American socialist, associated with the Shachtman tradition and active in the leadership of CORE. By January 1963, Rustin was able to present Randolph with a finished proposal.

Randolph was quite pleased, secured adoption of the proposal by the Negro American Labor Council, and then sought support from both King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC, as a prelude to seeking participation from the NAACP and the Urban League. For various reasons, King’s initial reaction was lukewarm. The NAACP and the Urban League were non-committal. The projected date was shifted to October, and Randolph reached out to the AFL-CIO. Its president, George Meany, was exasperated by Randolph’s criticism of racist policies in some unions, and had complained during the 1959 AFL-CIO convention: “I would like Brother Randolph to stay a little closer to the trade union movement and pay a little less attention to outside organizations that pay lip service rather than real service.” At the same convention he exploded: “Who the hell appointed you as the guardian of all the Negroes in America?” Still stand-offish several years later, Meany viewed the March on Washington as “an unwise legislative tactic,” rejecting the proposal for AFL-CIO endorsement. Walter Reuther, the ex-socialist liberal leader of the United Auto Workers, was the only member of the AFL-CIO executive board to respond positively.14

It was not clear that this proposed March would get off the ground.

Civil Rights Upsurge

A succession of events in the first half of 1963 totally changed the landscape within the civil rights movement, and caused King to become a strong advocate. “Birmingham was a turning point in the Southern struggle; it eventually changed the face of the South and awakened the nation,” Anne Braden observed in a lengthy report on “The Southern Freedom Movement in Perspective” written for Monthly Review. “The immediate objectives of the Birmingham campaign were a beginning on desegregation of public accommodations and a beginning on opening up job opportunities.” The arrest of King (which resulted in his eloquent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”) was part of a larger phenomenon in which “thousands joined the movement and went to jail,” and even “the children of Birmingham became involved.” Police Commissioner Bull Connor, who “had been breaking up integrated meetings since the 1930’s,” remained true to form—he did not hesitate to bring out “the police dogs, clubs, and fire hoses.” In contrast to previous years, however, now it was televised and widely reported in the national and international media. “The nation and the world were shocked and moved to action.”15

A firestorm of protests swept through the South. “No state remained untouched. In a single month, there was mass direct action in at least 30 cities,” according to Braden. “Some surveys placed the figure at 100 communities for that entire hot summer of 1963.”16 The backlash of white racist violence assumed murderous proportions, most dramatically with the assassination of Medgar Evers, the outstanding NAACP leader in Mississippi. This, on top of Bull Connor’s brutality, was too much. President John F. Kennedy, as leader of the “Free World” in the midst of the Cold War era, felt compelled at last to introduce civil rights legislation.

It was now an entirely new situation, and the thinking of King and his advisors shifted dramatically. “We are on a breakthrough,” King insisted. “We need a mass protest.” A decision was made to contact Randolph and work out a common perspective. One agreement was that civil rights must be coequal with economic justice—the name of the March was now “for Jobs and Freedom.”17

Rustin eloquently gave a sense of the militant spirit of this historical moment:

The Negro community is now fighting for total freedom. It took three million dollars and a year of struggle simply to convince the powers that be that one has the right to ride in the front of the bus. If it takes this kind of pressure to achieve a single thing, then one can just as well negotiate fully for more, for every economic, political, and social right that is presently denied. That is what is important about Birmingham: tokenism is finished.

The Negro masses are no longer prepared to wait for anybody: not for elections, not to count votes, not to wait on the Kennedys or for legislation nor, in fact, for Negro leaders themselves. They are going to move. Nothing can stop them from moving. And if that Negro leadership does not move rapidly enough and effectively enough they will take it into their own hands and move anyhow.

Birmingham has proved that no matter what you’re up against, if wave after wave of black people keep coming prepared to go to jail, sooner or later there is such confusion, there is such social dislocation, that white people in the South are faced with a choice: either integrated restaurants or no restaurants at all, either integrated public facilities, or none at all. And the South then must make its choice for integration, for it would rather have that than chaos.18

This is from Rustin’s preface to Kahn’s pamphlet published in Spring 1963, Civil Rights: The True Frontier. Kahn and his comrades envisioned a transition from the initial phase of the struggle against the Jim Crow system to the more radical struggle for economic justice. “We are socialists,” he affirmed. “Ultimately, we believe, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, of all the subtle, psychological and emotional products of centuries of racism, awaits the creation of a new social order in America—a social order in which political democracy passes from shibboleth to reality, and in which economic democracy guarantees to each individual that he shall be judged as a person, not as a commodity. This, we are convinced, is a democratic socialist order.” But his focus was on the here and now. “To those who reject our socialist vision we therefore reply: Very well, but at least live up to your own vision. Give all moral and material support to the Negro struggle for equality,” because “the elimination of Jim Crow, with all its legal, administrative and political supports, is an immediate possibility.” He concluded: “To those whose commitment knows no compromises we pledge our full, vigorous and loyal cooperation.”19

Militancy and Moderation

The young militants of SNCC were absolutely on board with the perspectives articulated by Rustin and Kahn, and with Randolph’s call for a March on Washington. Increasingly frustrated with and critical of the failure of the Kennedy administration to provide clear support on either issue, or adequate protection for civil rights activists in the South, they were especially eager for militant action in the nation’s capitol. Along with Rustin, they envisioned the March as a massive and radical flashpoint of protest. Cleveland Sellers, one of a number leading SNCC activists drawn into helping to organize the action, recalls the way Rustin outlined it to them:

The march, which was [to be] sponsored by SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the NAACP and the Urban League, was being conducted to emphasize the problems of poor blacks. It was to be a confrontation between black people and the federal bureaucracy. Rustin told us that some people were talking about disrupting Congress, picketing the White House, stopping service at bus and train stations, and lying down on the runways at the airports.20

One of Rustin’s biographers has emphasized that he saw the Gandhian method of civil disobedience as being “near the heart of [the March’s] conception,” without which the action would be “little more than a ceremonial display of grievance.” And as he himself put it, the Washington action would be followed by “mass demonstrations continuing in this country for the next five years, covering wider and wider areas, and becoming more intense.”21

Things turned out somewhat differently. It was a one-day action—August 28, 1963—with the civil disobedience, the confrontations, and most of the explicit radicalism combed out as a condition for the support of the NAACP, the Urban League, the Catholic clergy, Kennedy supporters, etc.

There had been concerted efforts to prevent Rustin from playing the role of directing the march. Randolph had no tolerance for this exclusion, believing that “Rustin is Mr. March-on-Washington himself,” and he maneuvered skillfully and successfully to ensure his central organizing role (by assuming the position of Director of the march, and then appointing Rustin as his Deputy Director).22 Rustin, in turn, appointed trusted members of the Socialist Party as his key aides, and they drew together—to assist with their organizing work in Washington, D.C. and in cities throughout the country—a very substantial network of activists in or near the Socialist Party: the YPSLs; members of Students for a Democratic Society (then still the youth group of the Socialist Party educational “front,” the League for Industrial Democracy); staff members of the Socialist Party-linked Workers Defense League; SNCC activists; and members of CORE, a number of whom were in and around YPSL and the Socialist Party.

The perspectives of the Socialist Party were also advanced in lengthy Congressional testimony by Norman Thomas, reprinted in a special March on Washington supplement of New America, emphasizing the need to strengthen President Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation, also including provisions for full employment and fair employment to wipe out poverty and economic inequalities. The same issue of the paper included a statement by Randolph, lauding the Socialist Party’s platform, adding: “The revolution for Freedom Now has moved into a new stage in its development. Its demands have necessarily become not only the end of all discrimination against black Americans, but for the creation of a new society—a society without economic exploitation or deprivation.”23

There were, of course, more moderate elements that were drawn, finally, into support for the March on Washington. The NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, had made countless contributions to the civil rights struggle over the years, had actually been started by socialists (including the great African-American historian, sociologist, and educator W.E.B. Du Bois), and included in its ranks some of the outstanding civil rights activists in the recent period (Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and Medgar Evers being only some of the better known). But as an organization it favored a far more moderate stance, not only veering away from radical and socialist ideology, but also preferring legal and educational pathways, and working when possible with establishment politicians while tending to look down on protest demonstrations. The National Urban League, led by Whitney Young, had embraced an even more moderate orientation, and had consequently enjoyed an even closer relationship with the Kennedy administration.

Urban League sponsorship meant that a greater aura of “respectability” would be associated with the action—which meant little to some, but much to many others. And the NAACP—with its massive membership, significant resources, and dense network of branches throughout the country—had a capacity to mobilize large numbers. Yet if these organizations were to support the March, they would insist on far greater moderation than the initial organizers had projected. There is ample evidence that they did just that.

While Wilkins and Young did not always get their way (for example, they had intended to block Rustin from being the central organizer of the March), they were able to force the weeding out of one radical aspect of the initial plan after another.

Criticism and Justification

Rustin aide Horowitz “regarded the compromise as a terrible sellout. Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young weren’t going to join anything that would be embarrassing to John F. Kennedy, because they were very close to the President. I was in a funk for days.” King himself was dismayed over dropping each and every possibility of civil disobedience.24

Rustin saw things differently. “The march will succeed if it gets a hundred thousand people—or one hundred fifty thousand or two hundred thousand more—to show up in Washington,” he insisted. “Bayard always knew we would have to trade in militancy for numbers,” Norman Hill suggested later. “He probably let us put in militant actions [in the original plan] so he could trade it away. Four things mattered—numbers, the coalition, militancy of action, and militancy of words. He was willing to give up militant action for the other three.”25

As it turned out, however, even the militancy of words was contested terrain—when major forces of the March leadership insisted on the censorship of the speech by John Lewis of SNCC. The speech had been a collective product of the young militants who had considered themselves to be “Bayard Rustin people.” Horowitz had loved the initial draft, and Kahn had worked with SNCC leaders to help sharpen it. There are indications that the Kennedy administration had gotten a copy of it and applied pressure on moderate elements to have the speech killed. Washington, D.C. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who had agreed to deliver the invocation at the beginning of the March, threatened to pull all Catholic clergy out of the event. Reuther and even King joined forces with Wilkins and Young to demand either a rewrite or yanking Lewis from the speakers’ list. Randolph and Rustin ran interference for the indignant SNCC activists, but also persuaded them to cut and soften the speech—although much of its radicalism remained (and, according to some, was even covertly sharpened).

The question remains: To what extent did the March live up to the revolutionary hopes and expectations that animated its key organizers? To what extent had that been compromised away? The most unrelenting criticism came from Malcolm X, in his “Message to the Grass Roots”:

The same white element that put Kennedy into power—labor, the Catholics, the Jews, and liberal Protestants—the same clique that put Kennedy in power, joined the march.

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it. They infiltrated it. They joined it, became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, withclowns leading it, white clowns and black clowns.

No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover.26

Some critics of the compromise had second thoughts. “I came to recognize that the decision to scale down the militancy of the march was a sensible one,” Horowitz later commented. “After all, we wanted the demonstration to be as broad-based as possible, reflecting a coalition of American conscience. We couldn’t have achieved that objective if we had insisted on a program of radical confrontation with the government.”27

The March, however, involved, as Malcolm X emphasized, an accommodation with the U.S. government (insisted on by the March moderates), which in some cases—ranging from an agreed-upon post-March meeting with President Kennedy to vital last-minute assistance in repairing a sabotaged sound system for the rally—eased over into a degree of government assistance, which some argued finally meant a high degree of government control. Indeed, Randolph, King, Farmer, Wilkins, Young, and Reuther all met with President Kennedy on June 22 in order to iron things out and secure his support. Initially, Kennedy sought to compel them to call off the march. Persuaded that this was impossible, but assured that these leaders were committed to keeping the action moderate and not antagonistic to his administration, he indicated his tacit support.

Stokley Carmichael voiced the disappointment of many militant activists about “the price” being too high; the March’s militancy was diluted to fit the demands of the White House. “Which is not to say that Bayard and Mr. Randolph do not deserve credit,” he added. “They surely did. For their initiative and persistence had forged that alliance that made the march possible. And the march itself? It was a spectacular media eventa ‘political’ event choreographed entirely for the television audience.”28 Of course, the fact that millions of people throughout the United States and the world were watching an unabashedly pro-civil rights spectacle in 1963, when powerful legal and extra-legal forces were fighting to save the racist Jim Crow system by any means necessary, had a profound impact on the course of events.

Cleveland Sellers shared much of Carmichael’s sourness over the de-radicalization of the March. But there was another aspect to the event. “The people who got the most out of the march were the poor farmers and sharecroppers whom SNCC organizers brought from Mississippi, Alabama, and Southwest Georgia,” Sellers concluded. “The march was a tremendous inspiration to them. It helped them believe that they were not alone, that there really were people in the nation who cared what happened to them.”29

Next Steps

The great novelist and essayist James Baldwin caught the challenge: “The day was important in itself, and what we do with this day is even more important.”30 The fact is that Randolph, Rustin, and their socialist comrades were concerned, precisely, with what to do with the day. Their plan all along had been to utilize the momentum of the March, the coalition it represented, and the militant grassroots struggles against Jim Crow that it reflected, to move forward on what they saw as a revolutionary path.

The game plan of the Socialist Party was to draw a number of activists into a major conference that would map out and help propel forces into the future of the civil rights struggle—a future that would fundamentally change the structures of power in U.S. politics and in the economy. A special trifold flyer was mimeographed and distributed, inviting those interested to a Conference on the Civil Rights Revolution, to be held in Washington, D.C. for two days following the March on Washington. The sponsor was the Socialist Party. According to New America, over 400 people attended this conference whose purpose was to engage in “discussions of the strategy and politics of this unfinished revolution,” with the participants including “many young civil rights activists from the North and the South.”31 The independent journalist I.F. Stone was powerfully impressed:

Far superior to anything I heard at the monument [i.e., the Lincoln Memorial, where the March’s speeches were given] were the discussions I heard the next day at a civil rights conference organized by the Socialist Party. On that dismal rainy morning-after, in a dark union hall in the Negro section, I heard A. Philip Randolph speak with an eloquence and humanity few can achieve. He reminded moderates that political equality was not enough. “The white sharecroppers of the South have full civil rights but live in the bleakest poverty.” One began to understand what was meant by a march “for jobs and freedom.” For most Negroes, civil rights alone will only be the right to join the underprivileged whites. “We must liberate not only ourselves,” Mr. Randolph said, “but our white brothers and sisters.”

The direction in which full emancipation lies was indicated when Mr. Randolph spoke of the need to extend the public sector of the economy. His brilliant assistant on the March, Bayard Rustin, urged an economic Master Plan to deal with the technological unemployment that weighs so heavily on the Negro and threatens to create a permanently depressed class of whites and blacks living precariously on the edges of an otherwise affluent society. It was clear from the discussion that neither tax cuts nor public works nor job training (for what jobs?) would solve the problem while automation with giant steps made so many workers obsolete. The civil rights movement, Mr. Rustin said, could not get beyond a certain level unless it merged into a broader plan for social change.

In the ill-lighted hall, amid the assorted young students and venerables like Norman Thomas, socialism took on fresh meaning and revived urgency. It was not accidental that so many of those who ran the March turned out to be members or fellow travellers of the Socialist Party.

“In days of great popular uprising—like today’s civil rights revolution—with their tensions, tumult, and fermentation,” Randolph intoned, “the frontiers of freedom, equality, social justice, and racial justice can be advanced.” Emphasizing the centrality of demonstrations for forcing the drafting and passage and implementation of civil rights legislation, Randolph argued that there was a necessity for deeper change, that to solve the economic issues related to racism, “the public sector of the economy must be expanded, the private sector of the economy must be contracted,” and that “we need some organization in the country that will carry on and maintain sound exposition of the economic qualities that are to obtain in the nation, and this can only be done bythe Socialist Party, which is dedicated to democracy, and which believes that political democracy requires economic democracy, and that the two must go hand in hand.”32

Hope and Defeat

Three years later, in 1966, Randolph and others would present The Freedom Budget for All Americans. The aging activist described it as being dedicated “to the full goals of the 1963 March.” It was designed to eliminate poverty and unemployment within a ten-year period, to “attack all of the major causes of poverty—unemployment and underemployment; substandard pay, inadequate social insurance and welfare payments to those who cannot or should not be employed; bad housing; deficiencies in health services, education, and training; and fiscal and monetary policies which tend to redistribute income regressively rather than progressively.” He added that it would leave “no room for discrimination in any form, because its programs are addressed to all who need more opportunity and improved incomes and living standards—not just to some of them.”33

This remarkable ten-year proposal, with a price tag of $200 billion, had been developed with the assistance of Leon Keyserling (a leading economist associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as Harry Truman’s administration), and in conjunction with Harrington, Kahn, Rustin, AFL-CIO economists, and others. It was endorsed by over 200 prominent figures associated with the civil rights movement, the labor movement, academia, and the religious community. In Randolph’s opinion the success of this effort would depend on “a mighty coalition among the civil rights and labor movements, liberal and religious forces, students and intellectuals—the coalition expressed in the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.”34 King, one of its leading proponents, explained:

The 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 ghettoes and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. This human rights emphasis is an integral part of the Freedom Budget and sets, I believe, a new and creative tone for the great challenge we yet face.35

Within two years, King himself was dead—struck down as he sought to bring life to the principles embedded in the Freedom Budget through the Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. By that time, the Vietnam War was raging, and the leaders of the Democratic Party—not to mention the Republicans who would soon sweep into power under Richard Nixon—made it clear that they would not support such seemingly radical policies. Worse, the embryonic coalition crystallizing around the March on Washington, which Randolph and his co-thinkers had envisioned as decisive to the effort, was now deeply fractured. The Socialist Party itself was being torn apart over diverging positions on the war.

The 1963 March on Washington continues to stand as a great achievement, which—combined with hard-fought nationwide struggles—helped to secure meaningful civil rights and voting rights legislation, and impressive shifts in consciousness. Yet the promise and expectations of King, Randolph, and Rustin for a full realization of their goals for interlinked racial and economic justice remained unfulfilled. Twenty years after Randolph’s 1966 launch of the Freedom Budget, Rustin lamented:

In Randolph’s view, perhaps the most important contribution he attempted was a failure. That was his introduction of the Freedom Budget for all Americans. While he got the signatures of many, many liberals in all walks of life and civil rights leaders to endorse the Freedom Budget, they never considered it a priority. Randolph foresaw the further decline of the black family—and all the consequent pathology, including drugs, crime, illegitimacy, etc.—and the creation of economic “untouchables” in the black, Hispanic, and white communities, and general decline of the working class should the Freedom Budget not be accepted.36

Footnotes

  1. * Shachtman became a Cold War anti-Communist, supporting U.S. foreign policy in regard to Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, which caused splits among his followers. Despite Shachtman’s conviction that the United States could afford both “guns and butter,” it is widely felt that the Vietnam War fatally undermined struggles for economic justice that Rustin, Randolph, and King sought to advance.

Endnotes

  1. “The March Should Be Stopped,” New York Herald Tribune, June 25, 1963; cited in Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 250.
  2. Charles Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), xv, 57–58; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 182, 256–57, 836, 861–62; David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 153–56.
  3. Russell Baker, Looking Back (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002), 80; John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 345, 369.
  4. D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 344, 346–50.
  5. Branch, Parting the Waters, 836–38, 861–62, 902–3; Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around, 58.
  6. Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, A Biographical Portrait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 110­–19.
  7. Clayborne Carson, “Rethinking African American Political Thought in the Post-Revolutionary Era,” in Brian Ward and Tony Badger, eds., The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 117. Also see Paul Le Blanc, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christian Core, Socialist Bedrock,” Against the Current, January/February 2002, http://solidarity-us.org.
  8. Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 238.
  9. Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 189, 190; Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century: A Social Autobiography (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), 117.
  10. Tom Kahn, “Radical in America,” The Social Democrat, Spring, 1980, 3, 4; Levison quoted in D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 327; Stokely Carmichael, with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003), 158.
  11. Tom Kahn, Unfinished Revolution (New York: Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, 1960), 45, 59.
  12. Ibid, 6.
  13. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Scribner, 1997; originally published 1962), 1-2.
  14. Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, 299; Daniel Levine, Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 272n17; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 280.
  15. Anne Braden, “The Southern Freedom Movement in Perspective,” Monthly Review 17, no. 3 (July–August 1965), 46, 47.
  16. Ibid, 47–48.
  17. Branch, Parting the Waters, 816.
  18. Bayard Rustin, “Introduction,” Tom Kahn, Civil Rights: The True Frontier (New York: The Donald Press, 1963), 3.
  19. Kahn, Civil Rights, 4, 9, 13, 14.
  20. Cleveland Sellers, with Robert Terrell, The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990), 62.
  21. Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around, 77; Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 241; D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 344.
  22. Branch, 846-848; Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 247-248; D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 338–39, 347.
  23. “Socialist Party Testifies Before Congress: Rights Bill Needs to Be Expanded and Strengthened,” New America, August 10, 1963, special supplement, 2–4.
  24. Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 242; Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around, 77.
  25. Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around, 78.
  26. Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” in George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 16.
  27. Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 242.
  28. Carmichael, Ready for Revolution, 330–31.
  29. Sellers, The River of No Return, 65, 66.
  30. Baldwin quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 262.
  31. “Socialist Party Conference on Civil Rights Revolution,” New America, September 24, 1963, 5.
  32. I.F. Stone, “The March on Washington,” in Karl Weber, ed., The Best of I.F. Stone (Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 2006), 189-190.
  33. A. Philip Randolph, “Introduction,” A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources, 1966-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, October 1966), iii.
  34. Ibid, vi.
  35. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Foreword,” A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, A Summary (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, January 1967), 1.
  36. Bayard Rustin Letter to A.H. Raskin, May 8, 1986, in Michael G. Long, ed., I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012), 465.