A. Philip Randolph and the Day That Changed America
History is fickle. It has a way of being twisted, misstated, manipulated and sometimes, even outdated. History is one of those things that is subjective, according to one’s perspective. Two people can witness the same event and offer two different perspectives—sometimes neither of which is very accurate. They say there’s three sides to every story; your side, my side and the truth. History rarely offers the whole truth. It offers the perspective of the dominant culture.
Alex Haley’s once said, “History is the past, told by the winners.” Winners tell the story, losers rarely have a story to tell. There are very few days in American history that change the country forever. You can name, maybe four, days that changed the trajectory of American history and American culture forever. August 28th, 1963 was one such day.
This was the day 250,000 people came to Washington, to appeal to the federal government for jobs and freedom (equality). There has never been a day in American history that has been so historically misstated, whose cause was so misrepresented and whose outcome was so manipulated. People remember the March On Washington. One part of it—not much else. Few remember why the march was called, who called it and how it was marshaled. The organizing of the march has been historically misappropriated. One of my most defining “teaching moments” was when I was hired as a college professor nearly twenty years ago and saw that the history and political science had appropriated the March On Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King did not organize the March On Washington. He was its featured speaker (and there was a reason for that too). I assigned the question, “Who organized the March On Washington?” to my students and told them that answer was not in the book.
Those who used the answer in the book failed the assignment-those that researched, of course, aced the assignment. Then I had my students, 300 of them, send their answer to the text book publisher, every year…for ten years. Finally in 2005, after 3,000 student letters over ten years, the publisher rewrote the history correctly.
The March On Washington was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The thing about history is, if you don’t tell your story—somebody will tell it for you (and they rarely get it right). Fifty years later, the March On Washington story is still being largely misappropriated.
If I hear one more time that King called the march because he had “a dream,” I will puke.
1963 was a bellweather year for the civil rights movement. The South had drawn a line in the sand and turned up the heat on direct action non-violent protest. Violence and racial confrontation peaked as local governments and white citizen councils (sometimes, one in the same) brought all its resources to bear to turn back the movement. King received his severest criticisms, to date, particularly for the Birmingham movement—where he was criticized for putting women and students in harm’s way to fill up the jails in segregation protestations.
The criticisms weren’t just external. They were internal as black leadership thought what King was doing in the South was crazy, even suicidal. Remember, Dr. King was only 34 years old at that time. Other black leadership was near or in their fifties. There were no bigger critics than Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, and their disputes are well documented. But King had a benefactor.
The dean of the movement, A. Philip Randolph, who had a plan to call a March On Washington in 1941 to protest segregation in defense industry jobs and he called on President Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry. Roosevelt did and he called off the March. In 1963, job discrimination was at an all-time high and federal government had been passive in intervening in the deadly conflicts in the South. A. Philip Randolph decided it was time to call a march for “jobs and freedom.” That’s where the theme came from. The money from his and other labor unions that he solicited. He had Rustin (who will posthumously receive the Medal Of Freedom from President Obama later this year) run the day to day planning. Randolph set the program for the March, told black leaders to back up off of King, and gave him the platform to make the speech of his life (to that point). That wasn’t the first time King had made the “I have a dream” speech. He had made nearly the same speech in Detroit a few months earlier. It was just the first time whites, particularly in the North, had heard the young minister. It was the first time the President of United States had heard King speak. Who gave King the platform to be heard outside of the South? A. Philip Randolph. Who got the march nationally televised? A. Philip Randolph through his union relationships. Get the picture?
The March on Washington showed America the depth of the conflict taking place in the South. The mass mobilization that demonstrated this was more than just isolated “states rights” conflict. It was the largest gathering on the national mall in American history, at that point in history. The story of the day that changed America needs to be properly told and properly appropriated to the man that made it possible. And we should all celebrate his legacy 50 years later for changing America in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of generations to come.
A. Philip Randolph is a name that can never be lost to history.