Archive | August, 2013

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

28 Aug
Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we celebrate by showcasing some of the documents, photos, and speeches from this event that was a highlight of the civil rights movement.

The line up of speakers and singers showcased great singers including Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, but the music and singing often spilled out to the crowd as well. This clip complies all of the recorded performances from that day and gives the viewer a feeling for crowd’s participation as well.

The program lists Myrile Evers as speaking but in the end she did not speak. Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist who played a major role in the Little Rock School Integration crisis spoke, as did the famed singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

John Lewis, one of the youngest speakers that day, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and generated some controversy with his proposed speech. Lewis had circulated the text of his speech beforehand and was asked by some of the organizers of the speech to change the more militant sections. In his interview for Eyes on the Prize, Lewis talked about the speech and changed he made,

But I suggested that as a movement that we could not wait on the President on members of the Congress. We had to take matters into our own hand, and went on to say that, that the day might come when we would not confine our marching on Washington, where we might be forced to march through the south the way Sherman did, nonviolently. And some of the people suggested that was inflammatory, that would call people to riot, and you shouldn’t use that type of language. And Mr. Randolph really came to my defense…But even after we got, after we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, people had problems with some of the changes. The use of the word “revolution.” I used “revolution” in it, the word revolution in the speech, at least once, the word “masses.”

I said in, in one part of the speech, “We are involved in a serious revolution.” I remember that very well. “The revolution is at, is at hand. The masses are on the march” or something like that. People, they couldn’t deal with that. And it was, you know, it’s nothing. You look back on it, and, and in 1965, all of that, what we tried to suggest in that speech on the concern of voting rights, came to pass. The people in Selma, the people in Mississippi, made it real through the Voting Rights Act. And you know, all of the things that SNCC predicted and projected during that period came to pass in the Voter Rights Act 1965. And, but for that, you know, day, it was, tended to be looked upon as being radical and extreme.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 14, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The march culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr’s rousing and inspiring “I Have A Dream” speech. Reflecting the spontaneity of the day and the King’s skill as a speaker, the original text of the speech did not include the lines about the dream. King had done variations on that theme in previous speeches but had been told by his colleague Wyatt Tee Walker, and others, not to include it. In the moment though, when singer Mahalia Jackson called out for Martin to tell them about the dream. He did and spoke in soaring rhetoric and poetic terms that moved not only the people at the march but the radio and television audience that were broadcasting the speakers and proceedings of the march.

The speech was widely recognized as a masterpiece of rhetoric and was recently added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Drawing on numerous literary, biblical, and historical references, and using a repetition of lines that builds to an emotional high point, King’s words and delivery of the speech have a power that is still felt today.


A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington

23 Aug

Next week, will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The success of this peaceful march, which attracted an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people on August 28, 1963, was the culmination of twenty years of planning and organizing by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Many of the speakers that day electrified the crowd, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was a highlight of the event, but many other people working behind-the-scenes and in supportive roles made the event possible. The march also represented a fascinating cross-section of political affiliations and relationships between African American leaders, religious leaders, unions, and politicians.

The name A. Philip Randolph is not as well-known as Martin Luther King, Jr. today, but Randolph was a tireless organizer and leader who worked for many years to have a mass march in Washington, D.C.  Randolph’s dream of a peaceful, mass march to protest segregation began in the 1940s when he was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The plan for the 1941 march called for 100,000 black workers to march on Washington on July 1 to protest discrimination in the armed forces, demanded an end to segregation, and proposed anti-lynching legislation. As with the later march for “Jobs and Freedom,” the first march was planned with an emphasis economic issues and hiring practices of military contractors during the economic war boom.

As the date for the march came closer, a nervous President Roosevelt who feared a race riot would break out asked Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene and convince Randolph to call off the march. Randolph said he would not call off the march. Finally Randolph, President Roosevelt, and the head of the NAACP, Walter White, met to negotiate. The result of this meeting was Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 or the  Fair Employment Act on June 25 which prohibited discriminatory hiring practices of military contractors. After this Randolph called off the march, earning criticism from some quarters. It was truly a compromise since the armed forces would not be desegregated until 1948.

The dream of a mass march continued after 1941 as many of the same issues remained and intensified, but Randolph would have to wait more than twenty years to see his original plans come to fruition.

Bayard Rustin and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

16 Aug
Bayard Rustin in "Eyes on the Prize"

Bayard Rustin interviewed by Blackside, 1979

Bayard Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement, including his role as the main organizer and strategist of  the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, were often overlooked because leaders of the movement, and society in general, were not accepting of him as an openly gay man.

Rustin was not one to seek the limelight and worked behind the scenes on many of the civil rights movement campaigns including organizing the first Freedom Rides. He was also a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.

In a previous post, we mentioned the documentary Brother Outsider as a great place to learn more about Rustin. Segments of Rustin’s interview with Blackside appeared in Brother Outsider, and the entire interview can be read online as part of the digital project Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series.

Rustin’s mentor was A. Philip Randolph. Rahdolph had originally wanted to have a march on Washington in 1941 to call attention to the plight both social and economic of African Americans. The march did not happen then, but in 1963 A. Philip Randolph called on Rustin to organize the march and he accepted. In his interview from Eyes on the Prize, he discusses how that happened,

 Mr. Randolph asked me if I would set up the logistics for the march, which I immediately began to do, and those logistics were to create a—two hundred thousand people, we really got a quarter of a million, and to get every agency in America, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, intellectuals, labor movement, everybody involved and to contain so it was intensely nonviolent. And so I set up the plans for the march and Mr. Randolph gave me the right, along with Roy [Wilkins] and the other civil rights leaders, to see that that march was carried out.

Interview with Bayard Rustin, conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

In the interview Rustin discussed his role in the movement and his work with leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. In speaking about the strategy he employed and philosophy of nonviolence which he shared with Dr. King he said,

Well, the strategy was essentially made by an eleven-man committee around Martin Luther King, on the one hand, and the NAACP on the other, who fitted the strategy into the core decisions they were getting. People often forget that at the lowest point of Montgomery, when Martin Luther King was sitting in court, in connection with the Montgomery protests, it was a young man who ran into the court room and told Martin Luther King, that the NAACP had just gotten a decision from the Supreme Court. So that the walking in the streets, on park, and Larry Wilkins, continuing to be in a court, dovetailed. But there was third, forgotten strategy. And that was that the brutality of the South did more to help our cause than anything else. It was when the great majority of Americans saw the cattle prod, and the bombing of the churches, and the blowing up of homes. So that corner also played a role in the strategy. And that is always the case, there is never one single thing going on. Also while it does not seem to many people clear, it seems to me that even a presence of Rap Brown and Stokely were in their own way creative, because one of the reasons that people would send so much money to Martin Luther King, because he was nonviolent, was that they were scared of Stokely and Rap. So that Stokely and Rap played a part of the strategy. So things do not happen because somebody sits at a desk and maps it. It happens because something starts and then all kinds of forces come to play upon it.

I think also that television played a very major role. Because now you were having brought into every living room in America the brutality of the situation. So, I think if we had television fifty years earlier, we would gotten rid of lynching fifty years earlier. Because it was made concrete as against reading the paper that a black had been killed. You saw the brutality. People saw Bull Connor, people saw the fire hoses. People saw the cattle prods. And this made a totally different response on the part of the general population… they could not deal with people who were not being violent. And there was a kind of moral Jiu-Jitsu going on, a moral wrestling and they didn’t know how to put hands on us, because it was so intensely nonviolent. That was its core, its essence. And that is what ultimately got King the Nobel Prize.

Interview with Bayard Rustin, conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

It is very fitting that Rustin will be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom so near the anniversary of the historic march he helped make a success.

Bob Moses and The Algebra Project

1 Aug
Bob Moses in "Eyes on the Prize."

Bob Moses in “Eyes on the Prize”

A recent NPR story on civil rights activist and educator, Bob Moses highlighted both his contributions to the civil rights movement and the project he began thirty years ago, The Algebra Project. Moses is not as well known as other key figures in the movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X, but he was a pivotal and important figure during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

Moses joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked with Mississippi activist, Amzie Moore to register people to vote despite massive resistance and violence from the Citizen Councils and local authorities. Moses emphasized the role of Amzie Moore, another lesser known but very important figure in the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi.

In his interview conducted for Eyes on the Prize, Moses described working with Moore and their strategy for registering people to vote, being a delegate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and working during Freedom Summer as three students were kidnapped and eventually found murdered. Moses was also working in Mississippi when Herbert Lee, a Mississippi activist was murdered for his efforts to register people to vote by a state representative, E.H. Hurst.

In the summer of 1960, I was on a trip for SNCC and going through and Ella Baker had written ahead to Amzie Moore and I stopped in to see him in Cleveland, Mississippi. And Amzie laid out really what was voter registration project for the delta of Mississippi and he wanted SNCC to come in and do it. In fact he was the only person in the leadership of the NAACP that I met at that time that was willing to welcome SNCC and so I agreed to come back and help on that project. The people by and large most of the people in Ames County were afraid to go down. We had workshops for several weeks before we could get a handful who would agree to go. Once we got the handful to go, they would go if we went with them. And our position was that if the people wanted us to go with them, then we would go with them. If they wanted to go by themselves, then that was fine, they would go by themselves. But I think they felt some sense of security and clearly we were acting as some kind of buffer because the initial physical violence was always directed at us, at the voter registration workers who were taking the people down to register. That was the first stage, now when that didn’t work, then you began to get violence directed at the people who were involved.

Well, the Citizens Councils and the Klans in Mississippi, they were in back of the action which resulted in those kind of murders. Because what we knew was that there were meetings in Liberty drawing cars and license plates from all across the southern part of Mississippi, and on up into the middle part of Mississippi. People coming and sitting down talking, what are they going to do about this voter registration drive. Now, we don’t know what they planned, but we do know that after the meetings there’s violence began to break out, direct attacks on us as the voter registration workers and then these murders. First Herbert Lee and then a couple years later Lewis Allan, both killed right there in Liberty, Mississippi.

When I think about Amzie and his relationship to the movement, one of the things which I keep coming back to is his insight into Mississippi and into the consciousness and the mentality of white people who lived in Mississippi, and what it was that would be the kind of key to unlocking the situation in Mississippi. And somehow Amzie understood that the vote and the subsequent political action would actually unlock the key to Mississippi and he had dedicated—he wasn’t distracted by school integration—he was for it, but it didn’t distract him from the central centrality of the right to vote. He wasn’t distracted at all about integration of public facilities. It was a good thing, but it was not going straight to the heart of what was the trouble in Mississippi and somehow in following his guidance there, we stumbled on the key. That is the right to vote and the political action that ensued.

Interview with Robert Moses, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 19, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

After Freedom Summer Moses left the country, taught in Tanzania, and eventually returned to America and founded The Algebra Project. The drive behind The Algebra Project is to use mathematics as a tool to help students succeed in a technology-based society and thereby exercise full citizenship. The project aims to address similar problems as Moses’ work to register people to vote in the 1960s but through the avenue of education. Moses’ keynote speech, Math and the Freedom to Learn: Quantitative and Language Literacy as a Feature of Constitutional Personhood, from the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) on Saturday, November 17, 2012, can be viewed online.