The March on Washington and American Democracy

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To understand the importance of the March on Washington, one must remember that the racial attitudes of white people in 1963 were very different from those that prevail today.  At one level, most whites  understood that racial discrimination was profoundly wrong, an affront to America’s professed democratic values, and even sinful, if one was a religious believer. At the same time, whites resisted, often unconsciously, the idea of absolute racial equality.

I recall a relative, a transplanted Northern woman who despised the bigotry of native Texans, telling me that while she favored civil rights for blacks, she wouldn’t want to swim with them in the same pool. Attitudes of this kind were common among whites with liberal political views. They might favor the dismantling of Jim Crow, but they were of a different mind when it came to black families moving into the neighborhood or black boys dating white girls.

The brilliance of the March on Washington was that it solidified the conviction that new laws were needed to break down the walls of de jure segregation in the South while at the same time  forcing whites to begin to examine the cultural roots of racial bias.

In a sense, the March was a prequel to what today might be called a civil society campaign for democracy. Except, of course, that instead of a movement built around nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and social media, the March relied on mass constituencies: black churchgoers (Northern and Southern), other religious communities of every denomination, college students, the activists who were already involved in the Southern protest movement, important segments of the labor movement, and liberal cause organizations, some with substantial grassroots memberships. While the March organizers sought to influence American opinion about the plight of blacks generally, their principal goal was to mobilize American voters and political forces behind the omnibus legislation that was eventually adopted as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Students chanted “pass the bill” as the March got under way, and organizers emphasized and reemphasized the need for the Kennedy administration to put its muscle behind antidiscrimination legislation.

Washington generally, and the Kennedy administration especially, was decidedly nervous about the March. Political leaders fretted over the possibility of violence. This might seem strange, given that it was blacks who, despite a total adherence to nonviolence, were being beaten and murdered in the South as they worked to gain the vote and other basic rights. But it should be recalled that Malcolm X had already emerged as an influential and, for whites, frightening figure, with his advice that blacks should respond to violence with violence of their own. And many whites privately believed that, given centuries of injustice and abject poverty, violence by blacks would have been an understandable, if very regrettable, reaction.

Assuring the totally nonviolent nature of the March was a major priority for organizers. Just as important, the speeches by Martin Luther King and others were designed to emphasize the themes of justice, integration, a better future for all Americans, and the need to fulfill the promise of American democracy by elevating black people to full citizenship. There were no words of chastisement or rebuke; the message was that America was a great country that would become an even greater country once the scourge of racial injustice had been removed.

Like other civil society campaigns, the civil rights movement eventually foundered over  differences on goals and strategies. Bayard Rustin, the central organizer of the March and a key movement strategist, urged King and other leaders to seek further gains through political methods once the basic civil rights legislation had been passed. King rejected this counsel; he actually intensified protest efforts, expanded civil disobedience tactics to the North, and tied the movement for racial equality to the campaign to end the Vietnam War. King’s words took on a tone of castigation, and his optimism about America’s ability to change was replaced by a more radical and less hopeful analysis of the fundamental nature of the American system. Where Rustin understood that the cultural reflections of prejudice, such as my relative’s swimming pool phobia, would take years to dissipate, some black leaders increasingly came to believe that protest was needed to demolish racism in all its forms, and were astonished when Northern whites violently resisted campaigns aimed at neighborhood integration.

As we have learned in places as diverse as Egypt and Russia, campaigns for  democratic change that fail to make the transition from protest to politics at the right time often run aground. The American civil rights movement may have lost direction in the years after the March, but it is correctly seen as a remarkable success story in large part because it set and achieved specific policy objectives. The formal name of the March was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The freedom dimension was rather quickly advanced through the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other legislation. Not only were laws passed, they were enforced. Blacks voted in large numbers, and their political influence could not be ignored.

On the economic side, antidiscrimination legislation brought about the integration of workplaces all over the country, as blacks took jobs that they had been systematically denied. However, the ultimate goals of the movement remained incomplete. Wealth and earnings gaps between blacks and whites are still substantial today, and black poverty is a major problem in practically every big city. The reasons are many and complex. But it is clear that any economic progress produced by the March was tied to legislative and political changes, and that further advances toward economic equality cannot be achieved through civil disobedience or protest.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the March is regarded as a great success in large measure because the American system was capable of  meeting crises in ways that brought sweeping changes to the role of the state and major rethinking on the part of political leaders. Democrats and Republicans alike lined up behind the major civil rights laws; in the end, resistance was largely restricted to the Southern states where legal segregation prevailed. The United States today fortunately does not face a challenge of the magnitude that inspired the forces of civil rights protest. But as we take note of the March’s 50th anniversary, those who disdain bipartisanship and compromise as reflections of political weakness should keep in mind that these qualities were critical to the revolution in race relations that we are now celebrating.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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