The 250,000 people who attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represented a broad spectrum of groups within the civil-rights movement — all of which had different approaches and different agendas. As I reflected on this year’s reenactment of the historic march, I remembered being among the number of civil-rights activists of that era who refused to attend because we believed that the demonstration had been influenced by the White House and that its agenda had been weakened from its original purpose as an act of civil disobedience that was intended to shut down Washington until the pace of social justice was accelerated. In fact, President Kennedy originally discouraged the march for fear that it might interfere with his push for expanded civil-rights laws.
I was also reluctant to participate because of personal experiences I had had working among those who were most in need and seeing that many of those who sacrificed most in the struggle for civil rights benefited least from the improved conditions. I had seen that in a number of cases, poor blacks were the victims of a bait-and-switch game in which some civil-rights leaders used the social and economic conditions of the black community as the basis for their demands, but when the remedies were achieved, it was not the poor but the black middle class that benefited and, in a number of cases, the civil-rights leaders themselves.
I can recall leading demonstrations in the small city of Westchester, Pa., the birthplace of Bayard Rustin, one of the original planners of the march, who came to help us on many occasions. It was at one of these events that I had the pleasure of being introduced to Dr. King and spending some personal time with him.
To demand the desegregation of the work force, we had demonstrated for four months in front of a major pharmaceutical company. The company conceded to our demands and hired nine black Ph.D. chemists. But when we approached these men and women to join our movement, they replied that they had obtained their positions because they were qualified and, therefore, saw no need to join us.
This response was one example of a dichotomy within the movement that was evident in a number of other issues, including the forced busing of school children. Many parents were more concerned about improving the quality of their children’s schools than with achieving integration by shuttling their children out of their neighborhoods. The voices of the low-income people who were directly affected by the mandates for busing were ignored by civil-rights advocates and others who assumed that they knew what was best for their low-income counterparts.
A case in point is a public-school desegregation case that preoccupied Boston for several years in the 1970s. The case stemmed from a demand that black students be bused from a predominantly black high school in the Roxbury section of Boston to one in a white area of South Boston in order to achieve integration. The matter was brought to Judge W. Arthur Garrity to enlist his help in determining what to do about segregation in the Boston school system.
Judge Garrity did a very astute thing and went to the black community, whose children were being directly affected, and asked them what they wanted. After a series of community meetings, the parents concluded that their priority was quality education, not integration by busing. Not surprisingly, civil-rights lawyers, both white and black, advised Judge Garrity to abandon his position and the opinions of the parents and mandate busing anyway. Mind you, none of those attorneys had children on those buses, but they insisted that the plan be carried forward.
In spite of all the civil-rights gains that were achieved over the years, in many cases, low-income people did not benefit and sometimes suffered from the successes that were achieved. The strategic interests of the middle class often proved to be inadvertently hostile to the strategic interests of poor blacks. In 1965, commentator Bill Raspberry wrote a column in the Washington Post with the headline, “Poor Negroes are not benefiting from the gains of the civil-rights movement.”
Today, this class division can be seen in demands for political, social, and economic advancement. The most pressing issues of poor and low-income blacks are ignored as their “spokesmen” use the issue of racism to anesthetize them in order to keep them from calling for action on the devastation facing their communities.
Now, 50 years after Raspberry issued his warning, columnist Courtland Milloy echoes some of the same sentiments in a recent column on this week’s March on Washington, writing: “Unlike the march in 1963, organized by socialist intellectuals A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the updated version featured politicians, media personalities, and even the public-relations presence of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Where would today’s civil-rights organizations be without their corporate sponsors?”
As Milloy notes, the common theme of the recent march was “fight to make America live up to her promise.” But what about the promises that black people should have made to themselves during the past 50 years, such as honoring the legacy of those who gave so much and received so little in return?
I found it disturbing that organizers of the recent march so easily invoked the name of Dr. King, who was a champion of peace and reconciliation, while they poured forth division and a lack of empathy for those suffering outside of their race. Dr. King believed in the importance of being morally consistent in your own affairs so that you could demand the same from others. He spoke out against the violence of the KKK, but he spoke with equal vigor against the retaliatory violence of the Black Panther Party. The leaders of the recent march continue to demand justice for Trayvon Martin and sympathy for his family. But they fail to demand justice for the fatal shooting of a white baby in a stroller during a robbery attempt in coastal Georgia or for the WWII veteran that survived the landing in Normandy, only to be beaten to death by two black teenagers as he was robbed of $50. There was no mention at the rally of the Australian student who was shot to death by a thrill-seeking trio of thugs.
If Dr. King were alive today, I think he may have done what I did 50 years ago — remain home and watch this recent parade on television, lamenting the lost opportunity to keep his dream alive.
— Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.