FDL Book Salon Welcomes Charles Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington
Charles Euchner’s Nobody Turn Me Around shines much needed light on the legions of individuals and institutions behind the March on Washington. Euchner offers a particularly useful window onto three issues shaping the 1963 rally: the scale of the organizing effort, the ideological and personal tensions driving march organizers, and the policies activists pressed the Kennedy Administration and Congress to enact. By centering his analysis on the people and polices driving the march, Euchner presents the rally as a fully human contrivance—the product of dedicated but nonetheless flawed people who understood the value of forging temporary alliances to achieve specific political ends.
Examining the march from the bottom-up, Euchner does much to challenge the popular, but erroneous, perception of the rally as a mere vehicle for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. To be sure, Euchner leaves little doubt as to King’s significance as the moral voice of the civil rights movement. But because King’s strength was oratorical prowess rather than organizing acumen, he is confined largely to the periphery of Euchner’s account, as the organizers are the main subjects of this study. The Big Ten—the rally’s core sponsors—are thus at the heart of Euchner’s narrative, while the pivotal figures in this people’s history of the March on Washington are, appropriately, black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and CORE founder Bayard Rustin.
Inspired by the growing economic divide separating blacks and whites, Randolph and Rustin began planning the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1962. The two longtime activists and friends soon approached labor organizations, including the NALC and UAW, as well as civil rights leaders from SCLC, CORE, SNCC, the NAACP, and the NUL with their proposal. While the heads of SCLC, the NAACP and the NUL were initially circumspect about the march, their concerns had largely faded by June 1963 when President Kennedy announced his civil rights agenda. Having shored up the base, organizers could finally take on the task of coordinating the largest rally in the nation’s history in earnest.
The organizational challenges posed by the march were, as Euchner makes clear, monumental. Hoping to iron out the kinks before the big day, civil rights and labor leaders organized a rally of 100,000 people in Detroit (June 1963) as a trial run for the planned march on the nation’s capitol. Drawing on lessons learned from the marches in the Motor City and elsewhere, Rustin, the rally’s coordinator, and staffers such as Rachel Horowitz handled myriad mundane but nonetheless critical details such as acquiring an appropriate sound system, coordinating transportation, providing sufficient numbers of toilets, training security, and policing the content of marchers’ signs. These and other activities required not just cooperation with federal, state, and local government, but they also entailed coordination with some 1,500 local civic organizations—labor unions and churches chief among them. [cont’d.]