An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
I do not remember much about August 28, 1963 because I was just shy of my seventh birthday. In my young forming mind I was not thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. or the protest that had been waged in Birmingham, Alabama that spring. The thing that most concerned me that August was my baseball team the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s right my friends, the Dodgers! In our household we were fans of the Dodgers because of No. 42, Jackie Robinson. Even though we never lived in Brooklyn or Los Angeles we religiously followed the Dodgers because they began to revolutionize America by selecting Jackie Robinson to break the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947. So, the summer of 1963 in my household among my male relatives and at my distant cousin’s barbershop, Mr. Baptiste’s, the talk was about Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam, Willie Davis, and Sandy Koufax. This isn’t to say that what King, SNCC, CORE, National Urban League and the NAACP weren’t a part of the conversation among the adults in my neighborhood because they were. And I was aware that civil rights demonstrations were going on all around my New Orleans community. However, in my mind as a little boy what stood out for me was not the March on Washington, but the Dodgers.
And truthfully that’s how historically significant events are for many people. They are not paying attention, but the significance of the moment reaches into their lives and reshapes them in ways unforeseen. In 1963, I was a shielded and protected child afforded the luxury of thinking solely about the Dodgers. However, many of my generational peers were sucked into the protest as young as six and seven in efforts to integrate schools or caught up as an innocent bystanders in the reactionary violence used to stop the movement. While I was paying more attention to the Dodgers’ quest for the National League pennant and an eventual sweep of the hated New York Yankees in the World Series, it did not mean that the March on Washington was not eventful for me. It would take me time to mature and understand what it actually meant for my generation.
The full name of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms.” That moment was to force the Congress and the Senate to act on much needed civil rights legislation. The Congressional Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was barely enforceable and protesters throughout the north and the south needed to take to the streets to challenge discriminatory practices everywhere they saw them. Police brutality was rampant! Voting rights were almost null and void, especially throughout the rural South. And full legal protections for individuals who were black, brown, yellow, or red and women of any race or ethnic group were often treated as a joke in local courts and among law enforcement. And finally there was the labor question—jobs! It is easily forgotten that the March on Washington was about securing economic gains for people who had been discriminated against and used as cheap labor or capitalist fodder or the “surplus army of the unemployed” for all their lives. Therefore Dr. King’s most telling paragraphs in his famous speech read:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
“The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms” was symbolic of our country’s greatest aspirations. It was a moment where African Americans leaders brought together a variety of coalitions in the best interest of the United States and the freedoms of Black folk. March organizers knew this spectacle event was only a day in a long-term struggle. They also knew that the march, though symbolically important, was not the end of struggle, but a greater call to struggle for justice in our country.
What made that one-day event so successful was that in every city and community in the country civil rights protest had been taking place. March organizers did not call people to organize on the grassroots level because that was occurring everywhere through local leaders. What the organizers needed to do was to get those local leaders to bring their people from their towns and hamlets to Washington. The hard work was getting all these people to cooperate and come together around the common themes of “Jobs and Freedoms.” Dr. King’s “I Have Dream Speech” was the topping on the cake. He voiced the collective aspirations of a country and a people who had been denied both full employment and civic liberties. However, the real work as King knew so well had been done on the grassroots level and without that organizing that speech would not be remembered today.
Back in 1963, what the March organizers accomplished outlasted the Dodgers’ pennant win. And it will surely out last the tomfoolery of the latest conservative media spectacle. Let us not be distracted by romanticization of the past or angered by this momentary nonsense of reactionary conservatism. Rather, let us commit ourselves to organizing and building on the legacy that made that very special day forty-seven years ago possible.