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Randolph was America’s best-known civil rights leader from the 1930s until King eclipsed him in the early 1960s. Founder of the first successful black-led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and vice president of the AFL-CIO, he was also a top leader of Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America. Just before World War II he bullied Franklin Roosevelt into integrating the booming defense industry by threatening to organize a mass march on Washington. By 1963, with police violence rampant in the South and a civil rights act stalled in Congress, he decided the time had come.
The march’s hands-on organizer was Randolph’s longtime aide, the black pacifist and gay rights pioneer (and future Soviet Jewry activist) Bayard Rustin. Rustin had gone to India in the 1940s to study non-violent activism with Gandhi. In 1957 Randolph sent him to Alabama to teach non-violence theory to the young Dr. King.
On that day in 1963, at the end, after Bob Dylan sang and King spoke, Rustin read the march’s “demands” to the quarter-million assembled: passage of the civil rights act, full school integration, banning discrimination in housing, a national minimum wage and a massive job-training and employment program “for every person in this nation, black or white.”
Randolph had laid out the themes as the day began. “This civil rights revolution,” he said, “is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”
“And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
For Randolph, the fight for black rights had to be the cutting edge of a larger social struggle. Demanding justice for one’s own kind alone would change nothing: “Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.” That would be building a castle on sand.
It’s hard to remember now, but words like those didn’t sound so radical in 1963, when one-third of workers belonged to unions, when middle-class students risked their lives for social change, wealthy folks saw their top tax rate cut to a piddling 70% and low-skilled workers could buy a house and send their kids to college.
But that era was coming to an end, and the march helped to end it. America forgot Randolph that day and embraced his young, passionate, inexperienced student, the one who had a dream about a cruel America repaying its debt to his people. Who saw blacks living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Who couldn’t yet imagine an America of whites in need or blacks reaching out.
Before he died, King came to realize that his vision was too small, that black and white must fight together for both white and black, as Randolph had urged. But by then the movement for social justice had become many minorities celebrating their different identities and battling a soulless American majority. And the scorned majority, inevitably, turned its back.
And now, two generations later, all those precious castles built on sand — voting rights, food stamps, minimum wage, even women’s choice — are washing out to sea.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org