Obama and the Legacy of the 1963 March on Washington

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August 28, 2008 marks the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington. Forty-fifth anniversaries rarely garner the kind of attention reserved for their quarter and half-century counterparts. But as the Democratic Party prepares to nominate a black man as its presidential candidate on the anniversary of the march, the Obama campaign is doing its best to co-opt the rally’s legacy in its effort to reinforce the notion that the charismatic centrist black politician is operating in the tradition of civil rights leaders past.

“King, Randolph, Rustin, and the march they helped organize were all part of an extant insurgent political movement.”

To be sure, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) was right when he asserted in a recent New York Times Magazine interview that Obama’s successes offer a window onto just how far the nation and the Democratic Party have come since the 1963 rally. Still, as Obama attempts to play on the legacy of the march by accepting the nomination not at the convention hall but at Denver’s Mile High Stadium before an audience of 75,000 people, we should probably ask whether the black Democratic presidential nominee’s political approach is really in step with at least the spirit of the March on Washington.

When most of us think of the March on Washington of 1963 we think of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The slain civil rights leaders’ prowess behind a podium; King’s posthumous transformation into an iconic figure who “was the civil rights movement;” and advertisers’ distasteful use of “The Speech” to sell products ranging from renewable energy to airtime on Hip-Hop and R&B radio have all ensured King’s tagline would take on a life of its own – like the visage of Ché Guavara – in our collective memory.

“The 1963 March on Washington was neither spontaneous nor was it a novel concept.”

Unfortunately, the tendency to reduce the rally to a mere vehicle for King’s uplifting oratory has obscured a number of crucial realities about the March on Washington that have much to tell us about the workings of social movements as well as our current prospects for a new progressive politics.

There are three often overlooked facts about the march that are worthy of special consideration this election year.

First, while King did help organize the March on Washington, he was not the rally’s principal organizer. The 1963 protest had three architects: leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association and SCLC Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noted black labor leader and religious agnostic A. Philip Randolph, and CORE guru and openly-gay-man Bayard Rustin. These three organized the march in conjunction with a host of organizations including: CORE, SNCC, the NAACP, the National Urban League, SCLC, the Negro American Labor Council and the United Auto Workers.

Second, organizers conceived the march with at least two policy objectives in mind. The interracial rally was intended to demonstrate broad support for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which established the legal framework for federal affirmative action policies. March organizers also hoped to pressure the Kennedy administration to implement New Deal-styled jobs programs to counter the growing economic divide between blacks and whites wrought by deindustrialization and racial discrimination in employment and housing. To these demands, President Lyndon Johnson would respond with his inadequate War on Poverty.

Finally, the 1963 March on Washington was neither spontaneous nor was it a novel concept. The rally’s origins actually date back to fall of 1940, when A. Philip Randolph, who was already a well-known labor leader, first used the threat of a march on Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802. EO 8802 not only proscribed discriminatory employment practices in federal agencies and among defense contractors but it established the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which was to ensure that all bodies covered by the act complied with the federal directive. While Southern Democrats killed the FEPC at the end of World War II, grassroots support for anti-discrimination legislation among minorities and racial liberals led more than 20 states to create their own FEPCs. One of these so-called state FEPCs, New York’s State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD), would eventually serve as a blueprint for the body that enforces affirmative action policy to this very day, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Social movements require the dedication of hundreds or even thousands of men and women working towards reasonably well defined, tangible goals.”

What the history of the March on Washington tells us then is that social movements are not simply spiritual awakenings. They are political struggles that can take decades to achieve their aims. Social movements also require the dedication of hundreds or even thousands of men and women working towards reasonably well defined, tangible goals.

For historians, the mythology about the March on Washington and progressive social movements in general is problematic partly because it’s just wrong. The tendency to conflate a cult of personality with a movement, however, is not just a vexing problem for scholars. The now commonsensical belief that a single individual can – like a hero in a Wachowski brothers movie – transform society simply through the strength of his/her character, the sincerity of his/her words, and the righteousness of his/her cause has clouded the vision of contemporary pundits, voters, and even activists in this election year, leading too many to presume that Barack Obama – who is arguably the most charismatic Democratic Presidential nominee since Bill Clinton and certainly the blackest option for President the United States has ever seen – will usher in a new progressive era in American politics.

In Obama’s case, the messianic model of progressive politics that has come to dominate popular discourse about social movements is especially problematic, as his record as a progressive is spotty at best.

Obama may be hailed and assailed as a 60s-styled leftist but whatever the hype, after sewing up the nomination he has tacked ever further to the right. As several others have noted in the Black Agenda Report and elsewhere, over the last few months Obama has indicated a willingness to sacrifice our civil liberties on the altar of the war on terror (remember the evolution of his stance on FISA?); he has sided with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on recent Supreme Court decisions on gun control and capital punishment; and he has consistently emphasized the alleged cultural pathologies of the black poor to help explain African American poverty, further validating a nearly thirty year old agenda to justify federal retrenchment and the widening gulf between rich and poor in America.

“The messianic model of progressive politics that has come to dominate popular discourse about social movements is especially problematic.”

I know the orthodoxy holds that Obama, like all Democratic Presidential nominees, has to run to the right to win the general election; but, as others before me have pointed out, Obama’s political dispositions – from his days as a community activist through four years in the US Senate – have long led him down the path of least resistance.

More to the point, if it is indeed true that Obama has to run to the right to win, this “fact” should call into question both the idea that Obama “is a different kind of candidate” and the very notion that he is actually capable of ushering in a progressive movement a la King – in myth or reality.

Just consider this: King, Randolph, and Rustin may have tailored the tactics and goals of the March for Jobs and Freedom to political realities. But they did not pander to opponents to their right. In fact, these civil rights activists actually organized the march over the objections of influential liberals, their alleged allies, including President John F. Kennedy. March organizers ultimately refused to capitulate to the President’s requests to call off the rally for two reasons. First, they understood what Frederick Douglass articulated so eloquently more than 150 years ago, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Second, King, Randolph, Rustin and the march they helped organize were all part of an extant insurgent political movement. This meant that their political base was beyond the control of the Democratic Party’s apparatus, empowering them, if you will, to press their demands in the face of opposition from both their enemies and their putative friends.

In this light, Obama’s mantra “yes we can” cannot hold a candle to King’s “I have a dream.” Not because King was a more eloquent speaker than Obama. But because King’s mythical speech was, in reality, just an exclamation point – albeit a powerful one – in a vibrant political insurgency.

“King, Randolph, and Rustin did not pander to opponents to their right.”

When Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama wraps himself in the legacy of the March for Jobs and Freedom this August 28, progressives should reflect on how Obama’s career to date stacks up against the hype.

reed.gifIf we must compare Obama to liberal icons past, his record indicates that Obama’s political vision probably owes more to John F. Kennedy – the guy who opposed the March on Washington and the Freedom Rides two years earlier in the name of moderation – than the organizers of the march that helped push Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson to enact the very legislation that laid the foundation for Obama’s professional and political aspirations.

So if Obama is elected president, progressives should be prepared to pressure him to follow through on liberal economic and social reform. He will not do it on his own.

by Touré F. Reed

Touré F. Reed is associate professor of US and African American History at Illinois State University. He is author of Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950, University of North Carolina Press. He can be contacted at tfreed@ilstu.edu.

Republished with permission from the Black Agenda Report, where it first appeared.

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