March on Washington Remembered
King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is just one watershed moment among many
Standing in front of the majestic Lincoln Memorial before an estimated 300,000 attendees on the National Mall, King’s speech touched on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the lack of true justice and equality for African Americans, the jailing and beatings of civil rights activists and his dream that his four children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But as inspiring as King’s “Dream” speech was then and continues to be now, it’s not the only influential moment from the march.
Lost in the popular imagination today is the heightened tension leading into the march, the progressive—even radical—list of demands the marchers rallied around, and the impact it had on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I think that it’s great that we nationally remember and I think largely revere this event,” said William P. Jones, UW-Madison history professor and author of the just-released book The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. “It was a massive demonstration. It was an extremely radical demonstration and one that I think is a real testament to the livelihood of our democracy.”
‘Tell Them About the Dream’
Milwaukeeans Vel Phillips and George Paz Martin both attended the march but were unprepared for what they were about to witness.
Phillips, then serving as Milwaukee’s first African American Common Council member, was urged to attend by her friend Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African American Supreme Court justice. She and her husband, Dale, flew to Washington even though it strained their household budget.
“I’ve never regretted going,” Phillips said. “It was, indeed, a memorable occasion.”
Phillips was not only inspired by King’s speech, but by the warmth and camaraderie of the mixed-race crowd.
“Everybody was sharing what they had,” Phillips remembered.
That peaceful crowd was at odds with the expectations for the day. President John F. Kennedy wasn’t pleased that the march was going forward—even though participants were urged to support his civil rights bill—and 19,000 troops stood guard, city shops were banned from selling alcohol, jails were emptied to make room for protesters and hospitals were ready for casualties.
It turns out that none of that was necessary.
George Martin, like Phillips, was inspired by the peaceful crowd on the National Mall, as well as the performances by Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
At the time, Martin was a student at Marquette University High School and went to Washington on the spur of the moment in a car driven by Father James Groppi, then the pastor at St. Boniface Parish, where Martin was an altar boy.
“My mother told me, ‘You’re going to Washington.’ It was the first time I’d been past Chicago,” Martin said of the experience he calls his “coming of age.”
Martin wandered around the Mall, taking in the sights and the sounds, and wound up at the Lincoln Memorial. He climbed the steps to get a better view.
“I was about 10 feet from the podium,” Martin said. “And then the crush of people came in.”
Martin, now a leading member of Peace Action Wisconsin, got a close-up view of history in the making. He listened to the full roster of speakers, but “Dr. King made you forget about everything else.”
He especially remembered Mahalia Jackson piping up during King’s speech, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
King did, in a speech for the ages.
Goals and a Call to Action
Although King’s speech overshadows the events of the day in today’s imagination, historian Jones argues that the Atlanta minister wasn’t the most prominent speaker. That honor, he says, goes to labor leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the Sleeping Car Porters and the driving force behind the march.
Randolph and the other organizers of the march emphasized economic justice, a major issue for activists in the North, as well as civil rights for African Americans in the Deep South.
Randolph and his fellow African American union activists “were really alarmed by rising rates of poverty and unemployment in black communities,” Jones said. “This was a time when the economy was doing very well. They noted that increasingly there was a declining number of jobs, entry-level jobs, in unionized manufacturing.”
Randolph not only gave the opening remarks, but after King’s speech he led the crowd in a pledge to uphold the goals of the march—many of them explicitly economic goals. Included on the list of demands was the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, the immediate end of school segregation, public works programs for the unemployed, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in hiring, a $2 an hour minimum wage, and withholding of federal funds from programs that discriminate.
Jones said Kennedy’s civil rights bill wasn’t fully embraced by the march’s leaders, although they encouraged participants to fight for a stronger version of it.
The call to action worked. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed after Kennedy was assassinated and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was supported by members of the civil rights movement and was influenced by the march’s goals.
Jones said the law’s Title VII, which created the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission banning employment discrimination, was a direct result of the march.
“This was something that Kennedy did not support,” Jones said. “He said, if we add it to the bill it’ll make it impossible to pass the bill. In hindsight, I think it’s the most important part of it.”
Success and Backlash
That said, Jones said the impact of the March on Washington wasn’t completely beneficial for African Americans and fair-minded whites.
“The march had a tremendous impact on giving the civil rights movement a positive image,” Jones said. “But it also sort of galvanized people who were in opposition to the movement.”
March participants were encouraged to peacefully fight for economic and social justice when they went home, no matter what the cost to their personal safety or security.
Vel Phillips, then fighting to end racial discrimination in housing in Milwaukee, called the march “a shot in the arm.”
“I came away, and my husband did too, feeling that we’re going to get to that promised land,” Phillips said. “That things are going to change.”
Change didn’t happen overnight or without much sacrifice. Phillips’ open housing ordinance finally passed in 1968, just three weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Milwaukee Rev. Joseph Ellwanger was a white pastor for an African American church in Birmingham, Ala., during that city’s years of turmoil. He said the March on Washington inspired African Americans struggling in the Deep South, but it did little to make white Southerners re-examine their views and end the violence plaguing Alabama.
White Southerners, including those who thought of themselves as moderates, “could not abide the thought of desegregation,” Ellwanger said. “[Segregation] was so much a part of their way of life that they didn’t stop to think about what they were really saying about the humanity of blacks and the dignity of every human being.”
Milwaukee peace activist Martin said while he’s glad to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march, he wishes that Martin Luther King could speak out against today’s racial, social and economic injustice.
“He would certainly be against the inhumanity of killing people with drones in other countries without license,” Martin said. “He would be right there on that. He would be right there with immigration. He’d be right there with the 99%. There’s no question about that in my mind.”
Milwaukee Celebrates the March on Washington
■ The Wisconsin Black Historical Society (2620 W. Center St.; parking in the rear) will host a panel discussion about the March on Washington on Friday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m. Panelists include George Paz Martin.
■ Milwaukee will honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Saturday, Aug. 24, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants will gather at the King statue on MLK Drive and Vine Street and will march to Victory Over Violence Park on MLK Drive and Clark Street.
■ Milwaukee Public Library’s Martin Luther King Library (310 W. Locust St.), in partnership with the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, will display a March on Washington photo exhibit through Sept. 12 and host events on Wednesday, Aug. 28. The Villard Square Library (5190 N. 35th St.) will host an I Have a Dream Intergenerational Mini-March on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 5:30-7 p.m. The Central Library (814 W. Wisconsin Ave.) will display a Historical March on Washington Exhibit through Sept. 11.