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Marching on Washington, labor led the way

Marching on Washington, labor led the way

The success, 50 years ago, of the March on Washington, owed much to American labor unions. But, as Michael Kazin wrote recently:

Today, by and large, Americans embrace the narrative of racial equality and view [Martin Luther] King as a national icon whose “dream” has come true, at least in part. But most know little or nothing about the history of unions, or they regard it as a dark tale of corruption, greed, and incompetence. Google hits for Jimmy Hoffa outnumber those to Reuther by a four to one margin. For labor’s fortunes to revive, its members and supporters will have to craft and tell a different and more attractive story.

They might start with the March on Washington. Most of the black men and women who organized the 1963 March were also labor activists, as William P. Jones explains in his fine new history. The idea was initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the seventy-four-year-old civil rights and union leader who was the sole black member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and the Negro American Labor Council, formed in 1960 to abolish “the color line” in every institution from unions to schools to sports to government.

To plan the event, they hired Bayard Rustin—a pacifist, democratic socialist, and Randolph’s old friend. He wanted, according to Jones, to launch “an ambitious campaign to draw attention to ‘the economic subordination of the Negro,’ create ‘more jobs for all Americans,’ and advance a ‘broad and fundamental program for economic justice.’” The demands included a minimum wage almost double the existing one and public works jobs for the unemployed as well as the bans on discrimination that were later written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ….

Then, progressive unions like the United Auto Workers made sure the event would succeed. In New York and several other cities, mobilizers worked out of union halls. Dozens of labor groups chartered buses, trains, and even airplanes to get members to the capital city. The UAW paid for a first-class sound system, so that every speech would ring out along the Mall, and produced thousands of signs with the slogan, “Equal Rights and Jobs NOW” printed in big, block letters. [UAW leader Walter] Reuther, who often took Randolph’s side in pushing the AFL-CIO to take a more assertive stand against racism, was the natural choice to represent organized labor on the program.

The text of Reuther’s speech at the March is available from the King Center. Below is a recording of the speech and video footage and photography from the March and the commemoration of its 50th anniversary.


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