The Birth of Coalition Politics
Guest authors Norman and Velma Hill have been activists and leaders in the civil rights and trade union movements for six decades. Their joint memoir, “Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain” (Regalo Press) is coming out in the fall.
“Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”
Most people remember the stirring speech of the day’s last speaker, but these were the opening words to the 250,000 people who attended the 1963 March on Washington. They were delivered by A. Philip Randolph, the March’s director, still considered “the Chief” of the civil rights movement even as he passed the torch of leadership that day to Martin Luther King, Jr. His was not the call of a day or of a year or even of a decade, but of a lifetime in pursuit of civil rights and economic justice.
Randolph had organized and led the first mass Black trade union in the United States (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), having forced the Pullman company into submission after 12 years of hard conflict. With the BSCP as a base, Randolph spearheaded the original March on Washington movement in 1941 that, by its threat of 100,000 Blacks marching on the capital, successfully pressured Frankin Delano Roosevelt to sign an executive order desegregating defense industries and federal employment just prior to US involvement in World War II. In 1948, Randolph organized protests on the Democratic and Republican Conventions and threatened to lead a mass boycott of young Black men to the draft to achieve desegregation of the US armed forces. He led the long, successful battle to rid the AFL-CIO of Jim Crow unions and to get the labor federation and its leadership firmly on the right side of civil rights.
In late 1962, seeing the desperate economic conditions and lack of progress towards equality for Blacks on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Randolph called in Bayard Rustin, his long-time collaborator. “It’s time to march again.” He tasked Rustin with preparing a plan for a new March on Washington. We are the two surviving members of Rustin’s planning group, which included the civil rights and trade union strategist, Tom Kahn.
The plan we developed was a militant one. We envisioned two days of action that included a “mass descent” on the Capitol. The first day would be spent lobbying and, as necessary, occupying Congressional offices. The second day would be a protest announcing a new Emancipation Proclamation to the nation to call for “an end to economic subordination of the Negro,” a full employment economy with a living wage, and legislative and federal action to achieve full integration. Randolph approved the focus on economic demands, but sought something larger. It was something he and Rustin had both been working towards: building a broad coalition for “jobs and freedom” that connected deprivation of rights to minorities in the US with the economic deprivation of American capitalism.
Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council, agreed to the March. We, as activists in the Congress on Racial Equality, helped convince its leader, James Farmer, to join in. Randolph’s and Rustin’s main task, however, was to get the other major civil rights organizations behind the March and a common set of demands. It had never been done before. The four other major civil rights organizations ─ the NAACP, the Urban League, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the even more militant Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) ─ were fractious about focus, strategy and tactics to bring about the civil rights revolution. Randolph and Rustin compromised (giving up the first-day “mass descent” on legislative offices among other things) to gain assent for the full March, its ten demands for jobs and civil rights, and for building a larger coalition with Jewish, Protestant and Catholic religious organizations and the trade union movement.
The leaders’ agreement for the March was given impetus by the dramatic events of Birmingham in April and May ─ Bull Connor’s police, dogs and firehoses had been turned on the city’s youth, who had responded day after day to King’s call to protest for equal rights. There were 2,500 arrests of minors and of King himself (prompting the Letter from a Birmingham Jail). President Kennedy was finally prodded to introduce national civil rights legislation in June but in a meeting with the original Big 6 leaders he warned against the March. Randolph told the president they would not be dissuaded. The civil rights leaders had agreed: the March would take place on August 28, the eighth anniversary of Emmit Till’s brutal murder.
They also agreed that Randolph would be the March’s Director and that he would choose Rustin as his deputy to organize it, overriding concerns that Rustin’s sexual orientation would be used against the March. (Segregationist Strom Thurmond tried, of course, and denounced Rustin's homosexuality as "sexual perversion" on the floor of the Senate. But this had an opposite effect. With Randolph steadfast, the other leaders rallied behind Rustin, a precedent in itself that such a public attack did not force removal of a prominent figure from leadership.)
The March was organized according to the basic principles Randolph and Rustin both operated on: belief in self-liberation; using direct mass action and non-violence to achieve liberation; a commitment to a society where racial equality and economic justice for all would prevail; and a strategy of coalition politics to build support among the majority of Americans for both. As a result of the broad coalition built around the March and Rustin’s organizing genius, an unprecedented 250,000 people came to Washington that day. For a movement daily facing down targeted violence and massive resistance, the March gave necessary momentum in the struggle to achieve landmark civil rights legislation.
Today, there is understandable dispiritment at the state of the country. The re-emergence of a national white supremacist movement behind Donald Trump has taken the country backward. Trump’s attempt to overthrow the last election and the continuing efforts by GOP legislatures to restrict and suppress the vote have been aimed generally at minorities but also squarely at Black Americans, the very people who made America a full democracy through their hard struggle. It should not be surprising that only 30 percent of Blacks think there has been “real progress” in race relations since the 1960s.
In remembering the March on Washington, King’s speech appealing to the country to fulfill finally its promissory note for freedom and equality ─ which entered immediately the list of great orations in American history ─ has overshadowed Randolph’s.
But in the current context it is perhaps Randolph’s achievement that day that should be most remembered. Through his leadership, he built and led a lasting coalition for jobs and freedom. He did not build it for a day, or a decade but for lasting purpose. That coalition has only grown, as reflected by the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, which Randolph began in 1953 as the Leadership Council on Civil Rights with three organizations (the BSCP, the NAACP and the National Community Jewish Relations Council). Today, it includes 250 national organizations. They represent all colors and creeds and all Americans fighting for human rights and equality. They also stand behind Randolph’s fundamental purpose. It has always scared some but has inspired others since the founding of the country. As he told the “advanced guard” in 1963: “What we want is a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines.”
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, we call on today’s youth, and especially today’s Black youth, not to be dispirited by lack of progress but to be energized for the work ahead, to keep building the coalition needed to defend the gains made and to move the country forward towards a more moral society that fulfills the goals of racial equality and economic justice.
To mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the Shanker Institute commissioned lesson plans and materials by AFT members that K-12 teachers across the country can use in their classrooms to teach about this historic event.
ASI also conducted a video interview with some of the few surviving organizers of the 1963 March.