This is the year of big anniversaries in American history: the 150th of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 50th of the Kennedy assassination and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
The publicity has already begun, but, unless you are at least 60 years old, you probably don't remember much about the day that more than 200,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Every baby boomer remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated, but the march, billed as "a new concept of lobbying," wasn't like that.
How remarkable — and successful — it seems from the perspective of 50 years. The full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There is nothing in the organization manual about guns, drugs, martyrs, or affirmative action. All of the organizers were men. Sponsors were limited to "established civil rights organizations, major religious and fraternal groups, and labor unions." The bad guys were "reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress," including Senator James Eastland, a segregationist from Mississippi who was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.
Publicity was not taken for granted. Supporters were urged to distribute leaflets "by duplicating this item at their own expense." Buttons cost a quarter.
Three events that year magnified the impact of the March. In June, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. In September, four little girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Kennedy called for passage of a civil rights bill in June and was killed in November. In Memphis, Henry Loeb was in his first term as mayor. Schools had been desegregated by a dozen black students in 1961.
What was the march about? Media accounts will focus, understandably, on Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, the crowds, Kennedy, and the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and Marian Anderson. But there is no better answer than the 10 demands in the organizing manual. This is one Top Ten list that is well worth reading:
1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.
2. Withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.
5. A new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
6. Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.
7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.)
9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.
The main organizer was Bayard Rustin, who kept a low profile because he was gay and a former member of the Communist Party. King was one of 10 chairmen and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The march set the civil rights agenda for the next 50 years. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed and steered to passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter has been extended and amended by Congress four times, most recently in 2006.
On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act regarding federal oversight of elections in states (including Mississippi but not Tennessee) and local governments with a history of discrimination in voting practices as unconstitutional. By a 5-4 margin, the court ruled that the guidelines were good law at the time they were enacted but are no longer necessary.