Archived: The March on Washington: Then and Now

By Raymond M. Brown

“We are not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”

A. Philip Randolph’s Speech to the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963

Looking backward, it might seem to have been just another march. At the time, everyone I knew regarded it as dangerous and important.

It came, after all, just eight years after the Brown decision rejected the government’s formal embrace of the doctrine of racial supremacyto which the response had been, in part, the lynching of Emmett Till and the Southern Manifesto. The March on Washington came in the same summer in which Bull Connors’ dogs and hoses were unleashed on demonstrators in Birmingham and in which Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi.

There was, therefore, an intense focus on security surrounding the march.

Have you ever wondered about the identity of the light-skinned Black man looking over Dr. King’s right shoulder during his speech at the march That was Sgt. Charlie Jackson, one of the first Blacks to serve on the Jersey City Police Department. Folks in Jersey City, particularly at the NAACP headquarters, seemed solemnly proud when they heard Charlie had this assignment.

In fact, security discussions were constant. It seemed inevitable that some racist elements would attack the march. I remember meeting after meeting in which folks raised the question of whether all of the participants could be trusted not to respond violently to verbal provocationor more. There was endless debate over who would be designated as a “marshal”arm band and allto protect marchers from attackers and our own instincts.

Why, then, were so many determined to embark on this march It seemed inevitable.

Most of the Black participants in the march, and some of the whites, knew that A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the “father” of the march, had spent decades insisting that we make our presence felt in the nation’s capital. To the Depression-era generation, Randolph’s “Pullman Porters” were an iconic, progressive, civil-rights-oriented unionone that in 1925 was the first Black union to execute a collective bargaining agreement with an American corporation.

In 1941, Randolph had called for a “thundering march” on Washington to protest Black exclusion from jobs in the burgeoning defense industry. FDR did sign an Executive Order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee and the march was postponedbut never cancelled. Randolph reissued the call for the march in the spring of 1963.

Most of the mainstream civil-rights organizations and many church and social groups joined in. It seemed to me at 16 years of age as though everyone was committed. This sense of historical importance was enhanced when word travelled throughout Washington the night before the march that W.E.B. Du Bois had died that night in Accra, Ghana. In more than one church that night, I heard comparisons with Moses and the Promised Land.

Other conversations that night that I heard in churches were less celestial. As I mentioned before in this space, my dad was President of the Jersey City NAACP branch. When asked by a national-magazine reporter on the eve of the march if he thought the NAACP’s cautious Executive Director, Roy Wilkins, was asleep at the switch, he replied, “Hell, Roy doesn’t even know where the switch is.”

I remember tagging along with him the night before the march to several sessions in which the old timers were trying to convince John Lewis and his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) colleagues that it was counterproductive to denounce Kennedy’s support of pending civil-rights legislation as “too little too late.” They succeeded partially. Lewis ultimately said:

My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is a party of principles” For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham

I recall after the march our amazement at the size of the gathering in which we had stood shoulder to shoulder with a quarter million souls, and relief at the lack of violence (i.e., that our folks hadn’t kicked any segregationists in their behinds!). I remember mixed feelings about King’s speech. Many were proud that the world had seen an example of the glories of African-American rhetoric and discourse. Some of us were disappointed at the “dream” theme from a man who months earlier had written in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom ridesand try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

The march is not much a part of our regular discourse anymore. It’s dragged out each August and then during Black History Month to make one point or anotherbut its lessons seem lost in the historical mist. It may be that we suffered between then and now from slight disappointment. The revolutionary frisson of that moment gave rise within weeks to the bombing of little girls in Montgomery and within months to the brutality of Pettis Bridge in Selma.

The chimera of interracial camaraderie could not survive the Black Power discourse. The power of moral authority, deftly used to legislative advantage by Lyndon Johnson, perished in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many of the concrete objectives which were the goals of the march now seem as far off as ever. Black unemployment and incarceration rates are through the roof and are seldom at the heart of our national political discourse.

Still, those of us who were there can feel that for a moment we were a part of historyand not just an illusory part even if much of its promise wasn’t met. Then again, until recently, I would see Charlie Jackson’s son in Jersey City, and, if he recognized you, he never failed to proudly offer from his pouch a copy of the photograph of his dad gravely staring over Dr. King’s shoulder as he gave that speech.

Of such moments is history sometimes made.

Raymond M. Brown is an attorney and cofounder of the International Justice Project. Brown is a Partner in the Litigation Department at Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP, is chair of its White Collar Defense & Corporate Compliance Practice Group, and hosts the Emmy Awardwinning New Jersey Network program Due Process. He previously taught International Criminal Law in the Seton Hall/American University Program in Cairo and at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

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