What You Can Learn About Social Change From The Organizer Of The March On Washington

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CREDIT: Wikimedia commons.


Civil rights and labor leaders march arm-in-arm at the 1963 March on Washington.

Civil rights and labor leaders march arm-in-arm at the 1963 March on Washington.

CREDIT: Wikimedia commons.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous speech from the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps the most deservingly admired direct action in American history. There have been many laudatory overviews and commentaries on the occasion, but in terms of the March’s lessons for our time, it’s important to keep in mind its organizers’ underlying theory of social improvement: protest and mass gatherings only get you so far in terms of achieving concrete social change. The March’s masterminds and leading civil rights figures believed we need a sustained political movement to achieve lasting transformations to America’s social and economic order.

By 1965, the march’s chief strategist and organizer, Bayard Rustin, had traded protests and sit-ins in for the more mundane tasks of registering voters, organizing coalitions, and making legislative deals. Rustin explained the political strategy behind the shift in his famous essay, “From Protest to Politics.” His basic insight was that a movement moving beyond addressing legal segregation to addressing other, subtler social inequalities needed to develop a broader vision of political action:

Let me sum up what I have thus far been trying to say: the civil rights movement is evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question. It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality. From sit-ins and freedom rides we have gone into rent strikes, boycotts, community organization, and political action. As a consequence of this natural evolution, the Negro today finds himself stymied by obstacles of far greater magnitude than the legal barriers he was attacking before: automation, urban decay, de facto school segregation. These are problems which, while conditioned by Jim Crow, do not vanish upon its demise. They are more deeply rooted in our socio-economic order; they are the result of the total society’s failure to meet not only the Negro’s needs, but human needs generally…

The role of the civil rights movement in the reorganization of American political life is programmatic as well as strategic. We are challenged now to broaden our social vision, to develop functional programs with concrete objectives. We need to propose alternatives to technological unemployment, urban decay, and the rest. We need to be calling for public works and training, for national economic planning, for federal aid to education, for attractive public housing—all this on a sufficiently massive scale to make a difference. We need to protest the notion that our integration into American life, so long delayed, must now proceed in an atmosphere of competitive scarcity instead of in the security of abundance which technology makes possible. We cannot claim to have answers to all the complex problems of modern society. That is too much to ask of a movement still battling barbarism in Mississippi. But we can agitate the right questions by probing at the contradictions which still stand in the way of the “Great Society.” The questions having been asked, motion must begin in the larger society, for there is a limit to what Negroes can do alone.

As Harold Meyerson argues in his excellent overview of the socialist roots of the march, the event itself was not designed to focus primarily on overt racial discrimination but rather on the lack of economic opportunity for working people of all races. Meyerson recounts civil rights titan and labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, stating, “Yes, we want public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.” It was this focus on economic advancement and structural barriers to genuine mobility for poor communities of color and working class whites that later led to Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign and his steadily more radical drift on economic issues.

These efforts to move from the elimination of Jim Crow to an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would promote a living wage, guaranteed income, and access to capital were obviously not as successful. This economic vision of the social contract remains under serious attack today from conservative political and social forces. If progressives want to truly honor the legacy of the March on Washington, they should enjoy the speeches and celebrations this week and then get back to the arduous task of educating and organizing a rising majority coalition of Americans behind the vision of economic democracy that Dr. King and other civil rights participants fought so hard to achieve.