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TSPR Commentaries

Work Remains, 50 Years After March on Washington


This week’s commemoration of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom should note that on the 50th anniversary of that occasion, one of the most effective demonstrations for human rights in the planet’s history is unfinished.

Also, it’s hoped that people recall the protest for what African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and white union president Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers intended: a “coalition of conscience” involving Civil Rights, labor and religious organizations working for economic opportunities as well as racial justice.

Americans should remember or realize for the first time what a momentous march that was. Undoubtedly, contributing to Congress passing the first effective Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction (the Civil Rights Act [1964] and the Voting Rights Act [1965]), the March drew people traveling on thousands of buses, dozens of chartered trains and planes, and countless cars. Speakers, singers, artists and athletes took part as well as everyday people. The crowd between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial heard from a Catholic Archbishop, a rabbi and a Presbyterian pastor; Mahalia Jackson sang, as did Bob Dylan with Joan Baez, Odetta and Peter, Paul & Mary; showing their support were various celebrities, including Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Billy Eckstine, Tony Curtis, Rita Moreno, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Josh White, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Bill Russell, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Tony Bennett, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Bobby Darin, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Blake Edwards, Robert Ryan and Diahann Carroll.

A few figures were late or didn’t make it. James Farmer of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) had been arrested at a protest in Louisiana; author James Baldwin wasn’t permitted to speak because organizers feared he’d be too inflammatory; John Lewis – the long-time Congressman from Georgia, but in 1963 the 23-year-old head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – had his own prepared comments toned down by organizers.

From its start, the march was intended to raise the nation’s awareness beyond news coverage that was becoming routine, if not accepting. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized, “If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong to the capital, they will be jeopardizing their cause.”

Randolph connected race and work, telling demonstrators, “We all want public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. We want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”

UAW president Walter Reuther added, “I share the view that the struggle for Civil Rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American. It is the responsibility of every American to share the impatience of the Negro American. American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performances in this important area.”

Progress was made, but it was not enough and it didn’t continue.

“While Wall Street was bailed out and the Federal Reserve spends over $80 billion a month to fatten the banks [with Quantitative Easing],” commented Mark Vorpahl, a union steward and writer in Portland, Ore., “cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are promoted and the scourge of unemployment, growing poverty and institutional racism remain unaddressed.”

Some of the March’s 10 demands haven’t been met, so the effort by the inspiring outpouring of the 250,000-plus marchers is incomplete, so work waits to be done – but that’s not surprising.

Vorpahl said, “The path to fundamental social change is not straight and clearly paved. Generations are consumed by building social movements powerful enough to topple an unjust status quo, only to fall back, sometimes for decades, if they haven't been able to pull out the economic and political grievances by their roots. Even when no substantial progress is being made or gains are rolled back, the lessons of previous struggles are still absorbed and adjusted according to modern conditions by new layers of activists.”

The 73-year-old John Lewis, author of a new graphic novel, “March,” is scheduled to return to the demonstration site Aug. 24 and to speak. One hopes he repeats his 1963 refrain, “We want our freedom and we want it now.”

It may be late, but it’s not too late.  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.