Martin Luther King Jr during 'The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom'
Martin Luther King shakes hands during the March on Washington in August 1963 © Eyevine

The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, by William P Jones, Norton, RRP$26.95/£20, 320 pages

Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, by Gary May, Basic Books, RRP$28.99, 336 pages

The Speech: The Story Behind Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream, by Gary Younge, Haymarket Books, RRP$19.95/Guardian Books, RRP£6.99, 204 pages

In Philadelphia, where I grew up in the 1980s, there was a little-used underground tunnel between subway stations. Very suddenly, when I was 11 or 12, the tunnel became a cardboard city for homeless men. I remember the fluorescent lighting and the blue walls, the men on pallets, their belongings in garbage bags. I remember the smell of unwashed bodies and alcohol seeping through pores. My mother and I avoided this passage but if the weather was inclement, or we were in a great hurry …Keep your head down, and walk fast, she would say. We’d scurry through, my mother shaking her head in disbelief at this new iteration of human suffering. Why didn’t anyone do anything?

You will recall your first experience of injustice, your first encounter with something so profoundly wrong that it required immediate and total redress, and yet, unbelievably – it continued unchecked. It is the great fortune of the times in which we live that many of us born in the west after the great upheavals of the 20th century – the world wars and the Holocaust, the freedom movements of the 1960s and 1970s – have had relatively individualised experiences of injustice. We are accustomed to freedom, and have been spared the terrors of living under an unjust regime against which there is neither defence nor remedy.

Fifty years ago, on August 28 1963, a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington to demand freedom from racial oppression and call for an end to the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned segregation in all aspects of public life in the American South. They came in chartered “freedom trains” and buses. From all across the country they came singing “We Shall Overcome” – some in hope, some in sorrow, all impressed with the gravity of the task at hand. As University of Wisconsin historian William P Jones explains in his incisive The March on Washington, ending segregation was just part of their mission; also central to the demonstration’s aims were economic disparity, chronic joblessness and poverty.

Protests in Washington are now as common as sliced bread. Not so in 1963, when the notion was fresh and powerful. (One can’t help but wonder about the future of public demonstrations in the US where, notwithstanding the Occupy Wall Street movement, peaceful protest almost instantly becomes the stuff of television commercials, robbed of meaning and potency.) The March on Washington faced widespread criticism – even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League feared the backlash that could follow. President John F Kennedy met civil rights leaders to dissuade them, citing the potential for violence.

The march’s director, A Philip Randolph, was no stranger to presidential apprehensions. A veteran anti-segregation crusader and trade unionist, he had organised a March on Washington during the second world war to force Franklin D Roosevelt to desegregate the military and end discrimination in the defence industry. Roosevelt capitulated on some, though not all, of Randolph’s demands and the protest was cancelled a week before it was to take place. Nonetheless, the seeds were planted and, 22 years later, Randolph’s great ambition had its day. Randolph and his deputy director, the peerless Bayard Rustin, marshalled the zeal and resources of countless activists around the nation. Groups such as the National Council of Negro Women signed on early and worked tirelessly, despite the rampant sexism that excluded them from leadership, and even acknowledgment, on the day of the march.

Martin Luther King was the last of 10 speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August afternoon. His was the soaring “I Have a Dream” speech for which the march is most remembered, though King and the march itself are diminished by this narrow recollection – both were about a great deal more than dreams. Randolph, the first speaker, set the tone: “We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” Blacks, he said, were “in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice”. The more radical and wider-reaching goals of the March on Washington, Jones argues, have been obscured by its success with regard to the end of legal segregation. Real freedom, so boldly invoked by Randolph, is more complex and even harder won.

The march was essential to the first of the movement’s triumphs, the Civil Rights Act signed into law on July 2 1964. Segregation and racial, ethnic and gender discrimination were now illegal but there remained another front: millions of black Americans were still deprived of the vote.

Gary May’s excellent Bending Toward Justice takes as its subject the arduous journey of African-Americans to full suffrage. May, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, opens with the dismal situation in Selma, Alabama, where blacks comprised 57 per cent of the city’s population but less than 1 per cent were registered to vote. Alabama became the epicentre of the fight for voting rights, though the disenfranchisement of blacks was endemic all over the South. Would-be voters were subject to oral quizzes on state law, and to legal questions “so abstruse”, writes May, “that law professors would fail them”. In Mississippi, potential voters were asked to estimate the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Those who managed to register were subject to harassment and physical violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilantes.

Resistance to black suffrage grew even fiercer after the success of the March on Washington. White racists in Birmingham, Alabama, were so enraged that they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls. It is impossible to overstate the courage of the citizens involved in the struggle. In Selma, students picketed the courthouse carrying signs reading, “Let Our Parents Vote”. They were arrested and forced to run three miles out of town under the orders of segregationist bully Sheriff Jim Clark. When some of the youngsters could not keep up, they were shocked with cattle prods. Most of us have seen the grainy footage of voting rights marchers tear-gassed, clubbed and set upon by dogs on Bloody Sunday, one of the most brutal confrontations between peaceful protesters and the Alabama State Police. Images of Bloody Sunday turned the tide of public (and political) opinion, and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law five months later, on August 6 1965.

Dangerously, the fight for the franchise is fading into the annals of history. Challenges to the Voting Rights Act have been frequent and vigorous. The most outrageous, and damaging, of these is the Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down the section of the act setting out the criteria used to decide which states must obtain federal pre-approval before making changes to voting laws. Since then Mississippi and Texas, both of which have a long history of voter discrimination, have announced plans to introduce changes that could significantly limit access to the polls for minorities, young people and low-income voters.

Just after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Randolph warned of a “crisis of victory”. Had the movement done enough? Despite all the gains, many black Americans were still poor, and going to stay that way. King struggled with the same doubts in the years just before his assassination on April 4 1968.

Gary Younge’s unequivocal The Speech quotes King in conversation with Rustin: “I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something …to help them get the money to buy them.” Younge, a British journalist based in the US, poses a salient, if difficult, question about King’s 1963 speech: why are its lofty images of racial harmony better remembered than its commentary on racial and economic justice? Younge writes: “America was more comfortable dreaming about racial conviviality than dealing with racism’s economic fall out and the redistributive policies needed to address it.”

By 1968 King had become something of a pariah. His outspoken stance against the Vietnam war had alienated President Lyndon Johnson. J Edgar Hoover’s FBI continued to persecute him with wiretaps and discredit him with gossip. The civil rights coalition was splintering: after years of beatings and arrests, some activists had grown disillusioned with non-violence and integration. Conservative members of the coalition, including some in King’s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, felt his anti-war position endangered recent victories.

King’s notion of the movement’s goals underwent radical revision. He recognised the full extent of the moral mandate for continued action. The needs, and indeed rights, of the men and women with whom King had marched, prayed and been arrested had not been secured. In April 1967 King said: “For years I laboured with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South …Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” This radicalised King is not the dreamer that exists in the public imagination. This King is uncomfortably close to the economic disparity and unequal distribution of power that remain at the heart of American society.

Now that the US has elected – twice – a black president, one could well wonder why the March on Washington is still relevant. Younge provides a few reasons: de facto segregation in American schools; black child poverty nearly triple that of whites; black unemployment double that of whites. “These are problems which, while conditioned by Jim Crow, do not vanish upon its demise” – an ever-timely observation by Rustin, quoted by Younge. As a society we have conflated the end of legal segregation with the end of racism and inequality. We have achieved the former but allow the latter to go increasingly unchallenged.

I cannot imagine that King, were he to walk that corridor of homeless men in the Philadelphia of my youth, would have felt his dream had been realised. I do not believe he could look at the current state of America’s prisons, or its schools, and feel his work was complete. Our drowning working class and the rising poverty across the nation continue to belie America’s promise. We have been gifted with his legacy. On this auspicious anniversary we must be reminded, to borrow King’s words, “of the fierce urgency of now”.

Ayana Mathis is author of ‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’ (Hutchinson)

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article