U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The March on Washington, Memory, & Intellectual History

(Editor’s Note: this is the third in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)

I thought it important to write a short piece on the March on Washington in light of the Fiftieth anniversary of the march this week. As one of the seminal events of 1963 (a year filled with seminal events, it’s easy to see), and a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington has captured the imaginations of millions of Americans since the summer of 1963. Of course, the commemorations of the March on Washington include certain memories of the event for certain groups of Americans.

For instance, the March on Washington this year has become a rallying cry for African American and many liberal activists. The George Zimmerman trial, Stop and Frisk, and battles across the nation over voting rights have highlighted that, despite the progress made on civil rights in the last fifty years, much work (and healing) remains to be done. Within that, the March on Washington itself has become contested ground for partisans, with many liberals and Left activists arguing that its original meaning has become lost. For example, Gary Younge of The Nation magazine has written for the September 2 issue a cover story entitled “The Misremembering of ‘I Have A Dream,” which is excerpted from his larger book project, The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. In the same issue, Ari Berman, a liberal journalist at the magazine, writes of the need for another march. Rick Perlstein, who has in my opinion worked very hard to rewrite the story of the 1960s as not just a string of liberal triumphs but rather, as a highly partisan and contentious era even before Watts and Vietnam, also has a blog post up titled “The March on Washington in Historical Context.” Here, he reminds readers that before the march began, many white Americans were concerned about a large gathering of African Americans in the nation’s capital. And that doesn’t even include President Kennedy’s attempt to moderate the rhetoric of the March.

While the March on Washington commemorative events will, hopefully, spark some serious discussion in the national media about how far the United States has to go on race, it’s also important to note what probably won’t be discussed. For instance, A. Philip Randolph’s original attempt at a March on Washington, in 1941, showed the determination of African Americans to achieve a piece of the economic pie that was growing as a result of America’s imminent entry into World War II. Summoning up that particular memory, however, may stun some Americans, but nonetheless the connections between the two movements are noteworthy. Most important, both stressed economics as a key factor in the plight facing African Americans. After all, the 1963 march’s title was “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. Economic justice, political equality, and social justice were unified concerns for Randolph, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and many others who participated in the 1963 event.

Here is where I think intellectual historians can really add to the discussion. Books like David Chappell’s Stone of Hope capture the thinking behind both the integration and segregation forces in the South during this time period. The decoupling of economic and social justice during the movement, however, is something that intellectual historians have also reviewed. One book that comes to mind is Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights, for instance, which argues that King was always interested in economic justice from his first foray onto the national stage during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. It’s also interesting to think about the language of economics and politics in the 1960s, far more radical, I’d argue, than it is today (at least in the mainstream, public sphere). Considering that liberals and radicals were able to argue about the merits of the War on Poverty, and that King himself was able to press for a Poor People’s Campaign by 1968, it’s interesting to think about the economic roots of the March on Washington, which have been largely forgotten in the previous five decades. A fifty year time span which, by the way, has also seen the ascendancy (or perhaps return is a better term) of a much more conservative argument about the role of government in the free market.

One last thing: perhaps it is more appropriate to talk about the Marches on Washington, which include not only the planned (but ultimately canceled) 1941 March, and the 1963 event, but also the 1967 Vietnam War protest, various rallies for and against abortion, and even recent rallies led by Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I can’t help but think that, with these marches, various groups are attempting their own pilgrimage to a cathedral in the American civil religious sphere. A March on Washington is a stamp of legitimacy, a way to show the power of your movement. Of course, it’s also worth considering that the last two examples were rallies that were designed to be as nonpartisan as possible, but certainly weren’t interpreted that way by many (especially the Beck rally).

These few thoughts are only an attempt to think about one majestic event’s place in public discourse. Today, the March on Washington is both remembered fondly by its participants and millions of Americans today, while also seen in the light of current debates about race, economics, and political power. As always, the battle between history and memory takes on a curiously political tinge.

9 Thoughts on this Post

    • Ah yes, I watched that yesterday! Very interesting stuff. I think people are genuinely stunned when they find out just how much hostility King encountered from even assumed “friendly” elements of the press.

      • A few years ago, two students told me about their encounters with King (one firsthand and the other secondhand). One student, a retired construction owner, marched with King and Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s. Another student (a young college student and a member of the Bruderhof sect) told me that her grandparents in Georgia knew King well and used to eat ice cream with him.

  1. Related to your post, Eric Arnesen is writing a biography of A. Philip Randolph that should be coming out soon.

    • One of my favorite, and one of the nicest, Loyola Chicago professors (now retired), Paul Pfeffer, wrote a short, accessible biography of A. Philip Randolph (published in 1996). Arnesen is a great writer and interesting thinker, so I’m sure his book will be excellent. – TL

  2. There are two intellectual/philosophical MLKs: The Martin Luther King of “negative” liberty–of full civil rights and equality, of non-discrimination in jobs and housing—enjoyed broad support across the parties and the races.

    However, after the great political civil rights victories in Congress of 1964 and 1965, the economic justice MLK of “positive” liberty, of not just non-discrimination but of ameliorative government action was far less embraced, both by Middle America [read: whites in Chicago] but by more radical forces on his left [Stokely Carmichael, et al.]as well who found him too tame. By the time of his assassination, many thought he was skirting irrelevance.

    Although it’s true of the man Martin Luther King, Jr. that in his crusade for equal rights positive and negative liberty were inseparable, only MLK 1.0 had broad traction then, and hagiographically has such traction today.

    As we meet the 50th anniversary of these historic events, I despair that it’s still 1964 in many people’s minds, and we’ll have to try again in another 50 to effectively suss out what actually happened.

    • Indeed. This is a succinct analysis of how King is remembered today. Have you read Thomas Jackson’s “From Civil Rights to Human Rights”? I only mention it again because in that book, Jackson shows that King was quite consistent in his critique of American economics and foreign policy from the late 1950s on, it’s just that (not surprisingly) he wasn’t very loud with those critiques until late in his career.

      • More triggered by Taylor Branch, RJG. It goes to what I find the most interesting question of “intellectual history”: the “true” persons vs. how they were received.

        It’s almost always true that those who ride astride the tides of history are eventually pushed aside by them.

  3. Robert: It should comfort you to learn (I suspect) that you and another prominent historian, Robin D.G. Kelley, are apparently on the same wavelength in terms of what should be discussed about the march but probably won’t be (in public venues anyway). – TL

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