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Friday, September 1, 2023

September 1, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: Speeches

[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 three of the March’s many important orations (again, beyond that most famous one).

1)      John Lewis: As I wrote in Wednesday’s post, John Lewis was only 23 years old in August 1963, but that didn’t stop him from delivering the March’s second most powerful speech. He was apparently stopped by fellow organizers from delivering the speech he originally wrote (and which he quoted in full in his memoir Walking with the Wind), which far more directly criticized the Kennedy administration and featured lines like “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” (Some fellow SNCC members like Stokely Carmichael wanted Lewis to deliver the full speech and were very frustrated that he wasn’t able to.) But even the revised speech featured “great reservations” about the Civil Rights Bill in its current form as well as such rhetorical bangers as Lewis’ demand to fellow activists that they “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes.”

2)      Walter Reuther: United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther was one of the white leaders who came on board when the March’s planning cohort expanded from the Big Six to the Big Ten, and he followed up that role by delivering a stirring speech of his own. Reuter’s speech included one of my favorite expressions of critical patriotism: “We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. American democracy will lack the moral credentials and be both unequal to and unworthy of leading the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny unless we take bold, affirmative, adequate steps to bridge the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights.” And he delivered it in his trademark fiery oratorical style that, according to fellow labor leader Irving Bluestone, led a Black woman in the audience that day to call Reuther “the white Martin Luther King.”

3)      Bayard Rustin: The frustrating prejudice toward Rustin (ostensibly as a radical, but mostly as a gay man) about which I wrote on Wednesday was likely responsible for the fact that the March’s principal strategist and organizer did not get to deliver a full speech of his own (similarly, James Baldwin was denied the chance to speak). But Rustin nonetheless played two vital speaking roles: he read aloud and in full the March’s list of demands to both the federal government and the American people; and he organized and led a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” which featured acknowledgments of the work of Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Prince Lee, Gloria Richardson (who has since criticized women’s relatively minor roles at the March), and Rosa Parks. Both those women and Rustin deserved the chance to speak far more fully than they were able, but we need to make sure not to replicate that discrimination and instead to highlight their vital presence and contributions at this defining Civil Rights Movement moment.

August Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

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