The Meaning of the March on Washington
by Bayard Rustin

Originally published Liberation, October 1963

[This article by March coordinator Bayard Rustin was written after the Birmingham Churche Bombing but before Assasination of President Kennedy. ]

The ghastly bombings in Birmingham point up the success of the March on Washington — and at the same time expose the inadequacy of those of us who organized it. We were bombed because we were winning, not because we were losing. But our biggest mistake was to have carried out such a powerful March, with a quarter of a million people in the streets, and not to have understood that the counter-revolutionaries would strike back in some such demented way. We can perhaps be excused a little, in that we were overwhelmed with the machinery and busy working out our next moves. But we should have had the next steps ready. We should have done our part to get the masses ready to move.

There is nothing that one can say about the death of any child, white or black. One of the terrible things about any death of a child is that there was snuffed out the life of someone who might have painted like Michelangelo or written music like Beethoven. But to kill four children where they had come to learn the Sermon on the Mount, to love one another and to forgive, leaves one without words. Therefore I shall say nothing about the death of the children and instead try to put the March into perspective.

1. The March on Washington took place because the Negro needed allies. One reason he needed allies was that the Negro revolt had, quite properly, begun to become a revolution. The struggle began with the problem of buses and lunch counters and theaters — in a word, with the problem of dignity. But since the roots of discrimination are economic, and since, in the long run, the Negro, like everyone else, cannot achieve even dignity without a job — economic issues were bound to emerge, with far-reaching implications.

Similarly, when the question of where Negro children go to school began to come to a head, deeper problems arose than when it was a question of a movie or a hamburger. When you touch the home and the job, you touch sensitive nerves. At the point where this happened, it became important for the Negro to have allies, for his own sake and for the sake of his white brothers as well.

Historically, the March on Washington broadened the base of the civil rights movement. The March was not a Negro action; it was an action by Negroes and whites together. Not just the leaders of the Negro organizations, but leading Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish spokesmen called the people into the streets. And Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, white and black, responded. This response obviated the danger that the revolt would be an argument between Negroes and whites over a few jobs. It began the process of focussing attention where it belongs: on the problem of what kind of economic and political changes are required to make it possible for everyone to have jobs.

The civil rights movement alone cannot provide jobs for all. It cannot solve the problems raised by automation — and automation deprives more Negroes of jobs than any other single factor, including prejudice. Nor can it tackle alone the coalition of Dixiecrats and plutocrats which impairs the political and economic health of the country.

2. The Birmingham demonstrations achieved a breakthrough in goals, the March in methods. Birmingham forced the nation to see that Negroes are no longer interested in merely integrating buses here and lunch counters or swimming pools there. It forced the liberals, both black and white, to see that over-all demands by the Negro were inevitable. For the first time it became clear that the Negro wanted everything in his life changed.

What Birmingham accomplished with respect to goals, the March achieved with respect to method. It forced people to see the necessity for masses in the streets. It underlined the inevitability of nonviolent mass action. It pointed the way to massive civil disobedience, by both blacks and whites.

Most Americans are more interested in order than in law, more interested in law than in justice. This means that in the normal course of events they will line up behind the status quo rather than make the basic changes required to meet human needs. In practical terms, this means that it is better for the Negro to go on suffering for another hundred years than to cause a disturbance in Washington or embarrass Congress. That is why it was important to get thousands of white people into the streets in Washington.

Until Birmingham, the objectives were on trial, until the successful completion of the March, the method was on trial. "Would 'they' not bring their guns and razors to Washington?" The March came off so beautifully that not only did it reassure our white allies, it also put our opponents on the spot. That some of them responded so cruelly, with the bombings in Birmingham (incited as they were, whether intentionally or not, by Governor Wallace and the "hold-the-line" Senators) and the subsequent shootings by Southern policemen, heightened the contrast between the nonviolent revolutionists and the status quo defenders of "law and order."

The Kennedy Administration

3. The success of the March also put the Kennedy administration on the spot. Even newspapers which had opposed the March right up until the day it took place turned around afterwards and asked Kennedy to come through for us. But Kennedy cannot come through as easily as some people seem to think. For there is no way to satisfy the Negro and his allies under "politics as usual." Our demands cannot be met so long as the Dixiecrats maintain their political and economic power. And their power is maintained not only through the well-known coalition with Republicans, but through alliances and compromises with their fellow Democrats as well.

Kennedy is the smartest politician we have had in a long time. He calls the Negro leaders together and says in effect: "I want to help you get money so Negroes can vote." That's when he is bowing toward us. Then he turns and bows to the Dixiecrats and gives them Southern racist judges who make certain that the money the Negro gets will not achieve its purpose. On the one hand he blesses the march, and on the other hand he reassures the segregationists and sabotages the aims of the March by permitting his brother to launch suits against the civil-rights leaders in Albany, Georgia. The time has passed when the Negro can be fooled by such methods. Our demands are not only too urgent, but too all- encompassing to be trifled with in this manner.

4. Inseparable from the problem of politics-as-usual is the problem of "business as usual." Historically, the significance of the March will be seen to have less to do with civil rights than with economic rights: the demand for jobs.

The problem of how to get jobs for Negroes is really the problem of how to get jobs for people. And this brings us up against the whole power structure. The tentacles of the power structure reach all the way from Birmingham to New York and Pittsburgh and Chicago, even as they also reach from New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago to Birmingham, Danville, and Jackson. We must put the total structure of the country under scrutiny, including the war economy. Not only does war industry fail to provide butter and schools, houses and hospitals, but it provides the least jobs per dollar spent of any sector of industry. It is the most highly automated part of the economy.

Under automation, we are faced with a new civil war situation all over again. Once again the union cannot endure only half free. It cannot survive if it is divided into those who receive high incomes and those who are unemployed and subsist on the dole. The white unemployed and the labor unions have not challenged this situation. The March did. The program was inadequate, but a crucial first step was made.

Police Brutality

The difficulties we face were re-emphasized by the bombings in Birmingham. There have been 21 unsolved bombings in Birmingham alone since the war, 50 in the state of Alabama.

But the bombings are only the most flagrant example of the counterrevolutionaries' strategy. All through the South, with the exception of a very few cities, an attempt is being made to crush the nonviolent movement by an excess of police violence, by beating and brutalizing the demonstrators. In Alabama, for instance, when Negroes march, Al Lingo, State Director of "Public Safety," moves in with his head-beaters.

Unfortunately, the Kennedy administration, with its ties to the Dixiecrats and its anachronistic foreign policy, is playing right into the hands of those who employ such tactics. In addition to the continuing appointment of racist judges, the abysmal failure of the F.B.I. to do its job, and the pressing of federal indictments in Albany, Georgia, President Kennedy called in the press, after the prominence given in the news media to the use of police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. He pointed out that the image of the United States was being sullied abroad, to its detriment in the Cold War.

Now, although there is a lot in the papers about the civil-rights movement, the true picture is missing. The terrible daily brutality of the police goes for the most part unreported. The killing of six children in Birmingham could not go unreported, but Kennedy's only response was to send in two unenlightened representatives of the old order, the very order Negroes are trying to destroy in Birmingham.

The inevitable reaction of large numbers of concerned people is to demand an end to this hypocrisy and to call for federal troops to protect the Negroes against inhuman bombers and brutal Southern police. I wish that the problem could be solved by sending in federal troops, but unfortunately it cannot. Basically there is only one thing federal troops can do, and that is to defend the status quo. But if Negroes had accepted the status quo in the first place there would have been no bombings and considerably less police brutality. We need protection, but we need protection and progress. Troops will not break the power of the Southern oligarchy. We did not ask for troops on August 28th, and ten thousand were on hand. How can we expect that when we ask for them they will do what is needed?

Creative Disruption

The need of the civil rights movement is not to get someone else to manipulate power. They will not do it in our interests. Our need is to exert our own power, and the main power we have is the power of our black bodies, backed by the bodies of as many white people as will stand with us. We need to use these bodies to create a situation in which society cannot function without yielding to our just demands. We need to make things unworkable until Negroes have jobs, equality, and freedom.

There has been talk of violence, especially by those in the North. If violence could ever be justified, it would be justifiable now for the Negroes of Birmingham. But we are not interested in retaliation. We want our freedom. And we cannot get our freedom with guns. You cannot integrate a school or get a job with a machine gun. The only way we can do these things is to use our bodies in such a way that the school or the factory cannot operate successfully without integrating us.

The same holds true for our pressing overall demands. The civil rights movement cannot go much further without taking on society. Until we do so there will be a continuation of the brutalization and serfdom that is the daily lot of the majority of Negroes and a large number of whites. We need to go into the streets all over the country and to make a mountain of creative social confusion until the power structure is altered. We need in every community a group of loving troublemakers, who will disrupt the ability of the government to operate until it finally turns its back on the Dixiecrats and embraces progress.

My words may seem extreme. But both the demands and the needs of the Negro people go so far beyond the present political possibilities that disruption is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be violent or nonviolent, creative or uncreative.

In the present framework of Southern brutality, aided by the leaders of both major parties and abetted by the apathy and "patience" of the white masses, there is no longer any viability for a minority nonviolent movement. Furthermore, there is a moral deterioration that takes place if the individual must face the brutalization and murder of little children, the furious violence of the Southern police, and the hypocrisy of the Kennedy administration, without a big enough response.

It is not a question of debating, in a vacuum, the morality of violence and nonviolence, on the one hand, or of "respect for law" versus civil disobedience, on the other. It is a question of program, of taking the offensive in an adequate way. For this, there must the masses in motion. There is no possibility of a practical program through violence. But unless those who organized and led the March on Washington hold together and give the people a program based on mass action, the whole situation will deteriorate and we will have violence, tragic self-defeating violence which will do immeasurable harm to whites and Negroes alike and will postpone indefinitely the day when all men will be free.

Copyright © Bayard Rustin, 1963.

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