Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. During the rally afterward, Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech (click below). It is probably the most well known American speech and it is often played yearly in many U.S. history classrooms around the nation during their civil rights movement units.
I am a social studies education professor at Martin Luther King's alma mater, Boston University (where he became "Dr." Martin Luther King), and while he was studying here, he lived in my neighborhood of Dorchester. The closeness of his early history creates a special place in my heart for him and his work. However, when I reflected on this important date, I decided to write about what is commonly not known about the 1963 March on Washington. In many ways, it is the stories of the other people involved in the rally and march. As social studies teachers, it is crucial that we are teaching the full story and examining this moment in history at a deeper level then it usually receives. How can we help our students see that this day represented not just one person's speech, but a grassroots movement of thousands of people working for equality and justice?
Here are some things you may want to teach about the March on Washington:
1. It was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Often the last part of the title gets dropped. One of the main themes of the civil rights movement in general, and Martin Luther King's work in the 1960s, in particular, was economic justice. In fact, when MLK was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis to support and rally striking sanitation workers fighting for fair pay.
2. The march was originally planned over 20 years earlier. A. Philip Randolph, with his colleague Bayard Rustin, first called for a march on Washington in the 1940s to illuminate discriminatory hiring practices in the war industry. However, 1963 seems an appropriate year to finally achieve their vision; it was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and a time when there was pending civil rights legislation stalled on Capitol Hill.
3. Martin Luther King gave a very similar speech to "I Have a Dream" in Detroit in the months beforehand. Tying into themes of poverty and social inequality, there were, however, some different lines, such as "I have a dream this afternoon, that one day, right here in Detroit," King said, "Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job."
4. Unions played a major role in supporting the march. Although the AFL-CIO did not endorse the march and the reality is that many labor unions restricted Black membership, unions (especially those organized and led by Black workers or did not use race to restrict membership) supported the rally and the greater movement for racial equality. Also, often forgotten, are the many unions that organized, transported, and supported marchers.
5. There was a radical history behind the rally, which has been suppressed in the popular media. This was particularly strong among the students at the rally. John Lewis, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was asked to remove segments of his speech that were critical of the Kennedy administration and many other student speakers (and their supporters) wanted to be more critical and aggressive in their rhetoric. The organizers of the rally, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, were both pacifists and socialists. They did not focus on only stopping racism, but stopping all forms of oppression, including their work for economic justice. They were both motivated by the work of W.E.B. Du Bois (a radical of his time), particularly his book, "The Souls of Black Folk." Furthermore, Bayard Rustin was gay and out, which not only was progressive for the time, but it also risked his personal freedom (he was jailed for homosexuality in 1953), as well as his safety and well-being (as anti-gay violence was quite prevalent). He would later become a vocal advocate for gay rights.
The media estimated that over 200,000 people attended the march and rally; organizers believed it was closer to a million. Regardless of the numbers, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom raised the profile of the movement. Many historians believe it helped motivate some politicians to change their position on civil rights issues, ultimately leading the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, Martin Luther King and the movement's mission did not end in the 1960s. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Council of La Raza, Japanese American Citizens League, Organization of Chinese Americans, Native American Rights Fund, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the National Organization for Women continue much of this work. Racism and discrimination is certainly still with us. From the recent Supreme Court decision gutting a major provision of the Voting Rights Act to the killing of Trayvon Martin, race is still one of the main dividing factors in the United States. More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation is increasing and the employment gap between Blacks and Whites persists. If we are to truly begin to achieve MLK and the movement's dream, we must confront the embedded racism, calls for colorblindness, and evident link between Whiteness and power.
When I was a high school social studies teacher in Framingham, Massachusetts, Mark Kissling was a close colleague. Like myself, he is now a professor of social studies education (at Penn State) and he wrote this thought-provoking editorial reflecting on today's anniversary. He asks, what would MLK say today about civil rights and the movement. He links his argument to Cornell West's recent profound reflection that, "Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality." I would add that MLK would most likely focus his arguments and speeches on poverty and our nation's persistent oppression and injustice. Let's not let his voice, and especially the voice of the movement, fade.