This August will commemorate the forty-ninth anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963 when the civil rights and labour organisations gathered to hear speeches on making a commitment to achieving a breakthrough on passing effective civil rights legislation. It was a wonderfully sunny day and not too hot. The streets of D.C. were full of people with signs, funny hats and union badges. It was a time, perhaps the last, for True Believers to gather. The speakers were all on the podium at the end of the Reflecting Pool and the crowds of people made it very difficult to get close enough to see them. The distributors of special editions of fringe newspapers made it even more crowded.
Still, everyone had a smile; people were pleased to be there; and there were only a few of George Lincoln Rockwell’s nasties handing out “Free Passes Back To Africa” mimeos to the crowd. Martin Luther King made a fine speech but I was more impressed with Walter Reuther, especially since many of the hundreds of banners carried by the unionists read “UAW” on them.
Everyone was moved and most believed that a great day was coming. It was a disappointment to find that, in the afterglow, not much was being achieved. I was not among those who looked for or expected much improvement. The weakness of the Presidential commitment and the racism of the ‘good old boys’ of the Southern Democrats was not encouraging. It was clearly going to take a fight and a continuing struggle to move towards equality.
In 1960, at Cornell, we were given the task by the coalition of the Freedom Riders, to handle some of the logistics of the rides. Some of us went down and scouted the routes. Some accompanied the Freedom Riders and some went down afterwards and searched the local jails to make sure everyone was freed or bailed. They thought that Ivy League white boys would attract less attention.
It was true. Hotel accommodation for black people in the South was not that easy to find and finding a place where blacks and whites could meet was almost impossible. One night we were meeting with Stokely, Rap, Jim Bevel and some others from SNCC in Alexandria, Virginia. There was no place for them to stay where we could continue our discussions. Someone came up with the idea of wrapping towels around their heads and claiming to be African diplomats. That got us a room for four of them in an Alexandria motel and we continued our meeting. It was worse further south. I spent $25 one night in Sow Hill, Georgia renting a prison cell in the local jail so that I could have a safe place for the night. Driving around the countryside was not an option. My good friend and classmate, Mickey Schwerner, found that out when they killed him in Mississippi.
Having seen the South in action I was not as optimistic at the March as many were; but we allowed ourselves to hope. Kennedy was a weak reed on which to lean. He talked a good game but was unable to deliver. The civil rights movement didn’t really start moving until Lyndon Johnson came to power. His clout and experience got the Civil Rights Act passed and much of the ancillary legislation. Sometimes even having the Government behind you didn’t help. During the time of Freedom Village, when a large chunk of downtown D.C. was taken over by a tent city of civil rights and poor peoples’ advocates I was assigned to work with the American Indians (now ’native Americans’). We had arranged a daylong symposium at the Department of the Interior for them with a sympathetic Secretary. Unfortunately, the Indians couldn’t agree on anything among themselves. They sat for hours fighting among themselves. The Secretary finally walked out. It was an interesting lesson; no good deed goes unpunished!
I’d had more disappointments by then. I had returned from England with graduate degrees in African politics. I thought I could find a job in something to do with Africa. It was an interesting experience. Everywhere I went I was told that my qualifications were outstanding. They would love to hire me but that I was the wrong colour. If I expected to do anything with Africa I would have to be black. I explained that this might be difficult. As the civil rights movement began to succeed in opening job opportunities for African-Americans it was also closing doors for others. There was what was familiar in South Africa - ‘job reservation’; jobs reserved for special race qualifications. I was extraneous to work with Africa and for work with the civil rights movement.
By then I had gone to work with the UAW, in the International Affairs Department. I was given the task of representing the UAW on many African affairs committees, collaborating with African liberation movements and liaising with the civil rights movements as many of my friends were still there and active. The level of hostility by African-Americans to institutions seen to be led by white people was growing. I was with Walter and Roy Reuther in Selma, Alabama during the strike there. When Walter pointed out to the rally that the UAW was the largest organisation of black people in America (far bigger than CORE, NAACP and SNCC combined) it did not go down well. By 1968 the civil rights movement was subsumed in a wave of black racism, from the Panthers upwards. Young activists decried co-operation with ‘white’ institutions; there was virtual self-segregation in the armed forces in Vietnam; and the political parties and grassroots organisations all had to have their ‘black sections’. Malcolm X criticised the march, describing it as "a picnic" and "a circus". He said the civil rights leaders had diluted the original purpose of the march, which had been to show the strength and anger of black people, by allowing white people and organizations to help plan and participate in the march. This self-segregation of protest allowed pretenders like Jesse Jackson to become ‘a leader of the black community’ – by default.
So, the promises of that wonderful day in 1963 were only partially kept. Opportunities to make real and lasting changes were diluted by an internal institutional racism that none of us expected. It is with a bittersweet taste that I reflect on that March on Washington when I reflect what could have been without the internal contradictions.