March on Washington’s Forgotten Influence
Civil Rights Changes Born out of Desire for Social Stability Not American Ideals
Source Newsroom: Hamilton College
Newswise — This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Americans have come to see the march as a turning point in our history, when, inspired by the eloquence and moral urgency of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” our nation set out to make civil rights and racial equality a reality for all Americans.
The March on Washington was indeed an influential moment, but not in the way that most Americans have come to believe. At the time, most white Americans saw the March on Washington as a profoundly unsettling, even dangerous event, coming in the midst of an unprecedented level of racial conflict. Beginning in Birmingham, Alabama where white police used dogs and fire hoses against peaceful black protestors, the summer of 1963 saw protests, riots, and demonstrations throughout the United States.
According to journalist Theodore White, “In the ten weeks following the Birmingham uprising, the Department of Justice counted 758 demonstrations across the nation; during the course of the summer, there were 13,786 arrests of demonstrators in seventy-five cities of the eleven Southern states alone.” White Americans began to realize that blacks would no longer tolerate the status quo and were coming ever closer to the violent "fire next time" described by writer James Baldwin. Time magazine illustrated these fears with a drawing of a phalanx of angry blacks marching toward the reader. The caption read, “June 1963--The moment seems to be now." With this in mind, most white Americans were wary of tens of thousands of people, mostly black, marching on the nation’s capital. An August 1963 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the march. Many believed that the march would lead to rioting and violence.
President John F. Kennedy shared these worries. For him, the protests and demonstrations were undermining the social order. He called for Congress to pass civil rights legislation in order to meet "a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety," but he also warned that civil rights “demonstrations have increasingly endangered lives and property, inflamed emotions and unnecessarily divided communities.”
Even worse, this unrest threatened social peace at home at a time when the nation faced grave foreign political and military threats at the height of the Cold War. According to President Kennedy, “Rancor, violence, disunity and national shame can only hamper our national standing and security.” Furthermore, news reports and television images of racial unrest challenged America’s claim to be fighting for democracy in the Cold War against totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and China. Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Congress, “The Communists clearly regard racial discrimination in the United States as one of their most valuable assets.”
Hoping to avoid a possible domestic and foreign policy disaster, President Kennedy met with civil rights leaders to get them to call off the march. If Kennedy had hoped that the authority of his office might help him get his way, he failed to account for the presence of A. Philip Randolph. As head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph had been at the forefront of the civil rights struggle for over 40 years and was not one to be intimidated by presidents. If anything, he intimidated them. In 1941 he used the threat of a march on Washington to pressure Franklin Roosevelt to establish a fair employment practices committee to fight discrimination in defense industries and in 1948 his threat to organize draft boycott by blacks helped push Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces. “The will be a march,” he declared to Kennedy in his Shakespearean-trained voice. Randolph knew from his previous experiences that patience and forbearance had achieved nothing. “The fires of discontent and unrest and aggressive action in the streets, highways and byways must be kept burning,” he wrote later. The government would never protect civil rights “unless it is made to act by pressure."
With the march definitely going on as planned, the Kennedy administration worked with civil rights leaders to make the march as orderly and peaceful as possible. Nonetheless, federal government deployed thousands of troops to the city with even more on alert nearby to deal with any outbreak of violence. Even with this level of planning and precaution, many white residents of the District remained fearful. Most businesses shut down, the city banned liquor sales and put every available police officer on the street, and the Washington Senators cancelled two of their games. Most white residents of Washington DC left town during the march or at the very least stayed home and away from the march itself.
Although it avoided violence or disorder, and its most lasting impression was the uplifting moral vision offered by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the march probably failed to persuade many Americans of the morality of civil rights. In September 1963, 50 percent of Americans said that the Kennedy administration was pushing civil rights “too fast,” exactly the same percentage as a similar poll just before the march.
Still, white Americans also knew that King was right when he told the marchers, "Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual." Eventually, America passed historic civil rights legislation in the ensuing years, but less out of a commitment to morality and American ideals than out of a desire maintain social stability and America’s global dominance.
Over the last fifty years, America has made amazing progress toward racial equality, but it has yet to fully realize Reverend King’s dream. To do so will require, now as then, more than just words, but constant pressure and struggle.
Philip Klinkner, Hamilton College James S. Sherman Professor of Government
email@example.com 315-859-4344 Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
Philip Klinkner is the co-author of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of America's Commitment to Racial Equality, which received the 2000 Horace Mann Bond Book Award from Harvard University’s Afro-American Studies Department and W.E.B DuBois Institute.