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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

August 30, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: The Big Six

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On a couple inspiring elements of the 1963 March’s leadership, and a frustrating one.

In June 1963, with plans for the August march beginning to take form, the leaders of multiple civil rights organizations came together to form a new one: the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Those leaders, who became known as the “Big Six,” included two men I’ve written about a good bit already this week, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., and four others: Congress of Racial Equality co-founder and President James Farmer; NAACP President Roy Wilkins; National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young; and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis. The Big Six would eventually bring four white leaders aboard to form a group known as the “Big Ten”: longtime United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther; National Council of Churches Past President Eugene Carson Blake; National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Executive Director Mathew Ahmann; and American Jewish Congress President Joachim Prinz.

The presence and contributions of those white leaders illustrate the fundamentally and inspiringly interracial and cross-cultural nature of the 1963 March on every level. But of course we don’t have to look beyond the Big Six to find important inspiration, and in particular I would highlight their genuinely multi-generational identities: Randolph was 74 at the time of the march; Wilkins was about to turn 62; Farmer was 43 and Young 42; King was 34; and Lewis was 23. Naturally the Civil Rights Movement featured leaders and participants from every living generation, but for a group separated by more than 50 years to work together so closely and successfully is still a striking and impressive achievement. As John Lewis later put it, “Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us, plus the four. We became like brothers.” In this long-ago post I mentioned the sociological argument that “diversity within categories far exceeds diversity between categories”; age and generation comprise significant such diverse factors within a category like “African American,” and clearly they didn’t stop this impressive group from achieving big things.

They aren’t the only such diverse identities, however, and when it came to another the March’s leadership were much less unified. As I highlighted in Monday’s post, Bayard Rustin had been alongside Randolph throughout the decades of civil rights marches on Washington (planned and actual), and continued to play an important role in 1963’s. But both Wilkins and Young objected to Rustin serving as an equal planner (which would have made for a Big Seven, of course); they ostensibly did so because of his ties to controversies like communism and draft resistance, but it seems clear it was Rustin’s homosexuality that was at the heart of the debate. As that hyperlinked article notes, Martin Luther King Jr. would likewise sideline Rustin at times due to concerns over potential responses to his sexuality, so this wasn’t simply about the older generations either. Indeed, the oldest of the Big Six, Randolph, had long worked alongside Rustin without these qualms, so we can’t attribute this attitude to age in any way. It didn’t stop Rustin from working as a crucial strategist and organizer for the 1963 March—but it shouldn’t have been a thing at all, and shouldn’t be absent from our collective memories.

Next March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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