Black America – in fact, America, minus its Republican contingent – paused last month to remember the August 28, 1963 march on Washington.
The great march that saw more than two hundred fifty thousand Americans descend on Washington to demand jobs and freedom. The march that nudged America to start treating its African American citizens as such.
The significance of the march – the coupling of legal and mass struggles on the streets – can’t be underestimated. This historical march became the template on how to wage a successful fight for justice in America. Many would point to the struggles of women and the LGBT community in this country as proud inheritors of this movement.
Cesar Chavez, the great Latino leader who organized farm-workers in the South West during much of the latter part of the 20th century, took and applied King’s non-violent tactics to demand better working conditions for the mostly Mexican farm-workers.
But, look no further than our own valiant struggles in the late 70s, 80s and 90s to fight for the immigration rights for tens of thousands of Haitian refugees. Konbit Libete organized the street marches while the Haitian Refugee Center and its numerous allies across the nation waged the legal struggles on behalf of the refugees.
The other critical factor underpinning the 1963 march (and the Haitian refugee movement as well) was the crucial role played by progressive-minded individuals – both White and black - in pushing forward this struggle to a successful end. Most of these progressive-minded individuals in the 63 march were also linked to the American labor movement.
(Needless to say the lack of meaningful gains registered in today’s current struggles – the slow erosion of the voting rights, Occupy Wall Street, the lack of a living wage for millions, the lack of decent housing for millions – is tightly linked to the weakness of the American progressive movement and one of its key components, the labor sector.)
The call for this march didn’t come from Dr. Martin Luther King but from two individuals that were closely linked to the progressive and labor movement at the time. We’re talking about A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The latter was a black, openly gay individual who was also among the first “foreigners” to come to Haiti in 1987 in solidarity with the Haitian people.
Much has been said about the relatively high number of White folks in the 1963 march – close to seventy thousand. This is an important lesson for today’s struggles. The Haitian refugee movement received enormous support from the religious and progressive White community. At times during some of these pickets there were more Whites and/or Jews than Haitians.
Dr. King played a major role in the civil rights movement. Buy, never forget about the enormous contribution from A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. In fact, it’s believed that Randolph paved the way for Dr. King. Indeed, Dr. King’s alliance with the labor movement and his anti-war stance can be credited to A. Philip Randolph.
Bayard Rustin, the architect of the march, was a friend and advisor to Dr. King. It was Randolph who sent Rustin to help Dr. King lead the civil rights movement.
No wonder why president Obama bestowed this year the highest honor of the land to Bayard Rustin.