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FDL Book Salon Welcomes William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights

Welcome William P. Jones (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Host Eric Arnesen (George Washington University)

The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights

In just a few weeks, the nation will be commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil rights demonstration that drew a quarter of a million participants to the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The March is one of the civil rights movement’s iconic moments: peaceful protesters, the largest demonstration to date in the country’s history, and music and more music. Of course, the best remembered moment of the entire movement history is, I think, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a oratorical masterpiece that is regularly replayed or excerpted in print, radio, and television. It has become, through repetition, perhaps the most recognized protest speech in modern American history. In popular memory, Dr. King’s speech is what the March was about: a dream of a new, integrated America, a nation that finally, after centuries of slavery and racial oppression, lived up to its promise of equality. The March, then, is often remembered as King’s March, its purpose summarized by King’s dream.

William Jones returns to that iconic moment in his new book, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights to remind us that the March was about far more than King’s dream, that the cast of characters involved in making the March a reality was far broader and larger than King and his advisors, and that the March had a much longer history, one that dates back to at least the early 1940s. “Few know that King’s was the last of ten speeches” at the end of a six-hour demonstration, he writes in the Preface to his book.

Even fewer know that it was a march ‘For Jobs and Freedom’” aimed at not just ending racial segregation and discrimination but also ensuring “that Americans of all races had access to quality education, affordable housing, and jobs that paid a living wage.” On the list of the March’s demands was a demand for federal civil rights legislation that guaranteed all Americans access to public accommodations, integrated schools, the right to employment, and the right to vote. But also on that list were demands for a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers . . . on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages” and a national minimum wage that guaranteed all Americans a “decent standard of living.” The economic component of the March was front an center in both its official demands and in its title – a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

“We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom,” declared A. Philip Randolph, the principle force behind the March and a long-time civil rights and labor leader, in his opening remarks that day, “[R]eal freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. . . .The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality.”

Will Jones restores the economic dimension of the March, often downplayed or ignored in popular accounts, to the historical narrative. He goes further in anchoring the 1963 demonstration in the longer history of black labor activism, rooted in the efforts and aspirations of Randolph’s own Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the March on Washington Movement of the Second World War, and the Negro American Labor Council. A considerable portion of his book, in fact, focuses on the campaigns of labor activists in the two decades before the ’63 March to combat discrimination in the job market and in trade unions and push for legislation mandating fair employment. The pre-history of the March, Jones suggests, is indispensable to any understanding of the events that took place on that August day half a century ago.

Jones tells a rich and compelling story, one that deserves to be read and debated widely. And, with this online exchange, let the discussion begin!

Welcome Will Jones and everyone who is reading along and participating.

Let me begin with a straightforward question, Will. How is it that the economic dimension of the March has been slighted in media accounts, popular histories, and documentary coverage? Given the importance of the economic demands, how and why have they largely been written out of the picture?


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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