Ron Radosh

The March on Washington, 50 Years Later: How the American Left Remembers It

Fifty years ago this week, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. The highlight was Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, now justly celebrated as one of the most famous orations in American history, standing alongside that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I, along with many other Americans, have my own memories of that day. I had recently left Madison, Wisconsin, to come back to New York City with my first wife and our infant daughter, where I looked for an apartment and began the long process of writing my doctoral dissertation and finding a job. I had been involved in the civil rights movement in 1959-60 at the University of Iowa, where I got my M.A. in history. I organized the picketing of Woolworth’s department store in solidarity with the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in, at which brave black students demanded to be served lunch at the segregated chain’s lunch counter. While at Iowa, my wife and I went to hear King speak at a local black church, and hence I already knew what a powerful speaker he was.

On the day of the march, I boarded an old hard-back yellow school bus at 5:00 a.m. for the long trip to the nation’s capital. The bus was chartered by people working out of Bayard Rustin’s New York office, and was officially part of a delegation of what became Students for a Democratic Society, but at the time was the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a group affiliated with the Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas. Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph were both members.

I remember one highlight. The then-segregated Maryland rest stops were open to all marchers, black and white. I recall groups of volunteers handing out free sandwiches and drinks to all marchers. Standing next to me, a black kid who was perhaps 10 or 11 laughed and said loudly: “The white power structure certainly has things well organized for our benefit today.” The march itself proved to be glorious — all ages, white and black, demanding that the American promise of equality before the law for all be realized and that the scourge of racism and segregation be ended throughout the nation as a whole.

The promise and hopes of that day would soon be shattered by the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing which killed young children at Sunday school, and by the other obstructionist attempts of Southern racists to stifle the forces demanding change and equality. The march took place as the nation recalled the recent assassination of Medgar Evers and the murder of Emmett Till in 1955.

It would be a long and noble struggle, and fifty years later, anyone with a shred of honesty knows how different the America of that day was from the one we now live in.

I have little to add to the wonderful column appearing in these pages by Rick Moran, who rightfully notes how Martin Luther King, Jr. would be stunned by the speeches at last week’s first commemoration march, where the huckster Rev. Al Sharpton was a keynote featured speaker, and where the calls of “Justice for Trayvon” and claims that the vote was being taken away from African-Americans resounded. It was apparent that in the eyes of many who spoke, we were still living in the America of the early 1960s.

The remembrances of the original 1963 March on Washington has led to scores of articles about what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say today, what he would demand if he was still alive and speaking at this week’s commemorative event. It is an exercise in which it seems every liberal and leftist is participating, with the expected results.

In most regards, what they think are the important issues are what they think King would be saying. The exercise amounts to  a litany of today’s left-wing agenda.

Writing in The Nation, Gary Younge does not disappoint in giving us the perspective of unadulterated leftism. For him, King’s historic speech was a “searing indictment of American racism that still exists.” (My emphasis.) As Younge sees it, Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical of the far Left, who only with the passage of time “went from ignominy to icon.”

Evidently Mr. Younge is too young to recall — or perhaps because he grew up in Britain, does not know — that the radicals in SNCC often referred to him behind his back as “Uncle Martin Tom” and “Martin Luther Coon.” And that self-proclaimed black revolutionaries like Malcolm X condemned King regularly as an appeaser of white power for advocating non-violence and Gandhi-style resistance.

The march itself, Malcolm X proclaimed, was “The Farce on Washington.”

Now it certainly is true that King was of the social-democratic tradition, as was the march’s chief captain and organizer, Bayard Rustin. Rustin, however, was as anti-Communist as one could be, and hence, urged King not to later waste the potential of his moral leadership of the movement by joining the anti Vietnam-war movement.

Rustin, who was a dedicated pacifist, would later sign an open letter informing Americans why he would not take part in any anti-war rallies in which speakers advocated victory for the Viet Cong or flew the National Liberation Front flags alongside that of the United States.

King gained stature and recognition for his leadership of the civil rights movement. But it is time to acknowledge that he was not correct in all the stands he took. Praising his leadership and moral power does not mean that we have to take the position that everything he believed was correct.

King did say in 1967 at a Riverside Church meeting that the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He was wrong, and it was, in my eyes, unfortunate that at that moment he drifted into support of the far Left’s agenda regarding Vietnam. Like so many others who opposed the Vietnam War and hoped for a North Vietnamese victory, King too was swept up by the growing opposition. He squandered his stature by joining with radicals whose agenda was not ending the war through a negotiated settlement, but favoring a victory for the Vietnamese Communists.

To left-wing radicals like Younge, King’s speech was not simply one calling for an end to legal segregation, but one in which he sought programs based on governmental help to bring material prosperity to poor black Americans.

Younge does not mention, however, that the program of the march for government intervention was worked on by Rustin and Randolph, and was based on the belief that the United States could afford both guns and butter, and that calling for programs like a domestic Marshall Plan to end the ghettos did not mean joining the Left’s call for less defense spending.

Of course, to Younge, racism is not an “aberration of the past,” as proved when the Supreme Court “gutted the Voting Rights Act this past spring.”

Younge’s views were bested however, by our capital’s leading voice, the Washington Post. In Sunday’s “Outlook” section, the main part of the front page and one other full page were given over to an article by Peter Dreier, whom readers of my PJM column might recall I was engaged in a debate with a few years ago. Dreier, the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College (where our president was a student), asks the question “Where would [King] lead us today?” He writes:

Today, at age 84, King would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice.

Since King is no longer with us, the truth is that we have no idea how and in what manner King may have evolved.

Might he have joined Bill Cosby in criticizing so much of black “culture” that is harmful and eulogizes thuggish behavior and glamorizes murder? Might he have worked to emphasize the building blocks necessary to rebuild the black family at a time when so many African-American youngsters are raised in single-family households by their mothers? Any of these and many other choices are possible when speculating about what Martin Luther King, Jr. may have advocated in the present day.

Nevertheless, Professor Dreier is certain that King would favor the banning of guns, or, as Dreier writes, “would probably push for tougher limits on gun ownership.”

Note that word “probably.” Might not he have gone another route, and decided that with growing gang violence in black neighborhoods, perhaps owning a gun of one’s own might work to prevent violence being unleashed on those trying to raise their children in a stable atmosphere? That perhaps greater legal gun ownership would cause gang members to think twice before engaging in neighborhood shooting sprees? Perhaps, after reading Robert F. Williams’ Negroes with Guns, he might have concluded that just as some blacks in the South protected themselves against the Klan by having an armed home, the same protection might work in the present against the threat of bodily harm by gang members.

Dreier is also certain that King would support abortion, or as he calls it, “women’s reproductive freedom.” Noting that King received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood in 1966, he cited King’s words:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.

Perhaps after doing some more reading, King would have quickly disavowed those words, realizing that Sanger believed in eugenics and, as Jonah Goldberg has written, “was a thoroughgoing racist.”

As Sanger wrote, she desired:

More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control.

One of her closest friends was white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, who favored limiting the food supply for the inferior colored races “so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.” Sanger asked Stoddard to join the board of directors of the American Birth Control League.

Later, Sanger created “The Negro Project,” which, as Goldberg points out, was meant to “help pare down the supposedly surplus black population.” Sanger actually wrote:

We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.

Her project report stated:

The mass of significant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes … is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.

Of course, being a leftist, Dreier automatically favors cutting the defense budget, since he obviously believes America has no external threats and does not need any defense at all. Even for someone like him, however, it is an insult to King’s memory to write that he “would probably be working with unions, religious organizations and activist groups such as Code Pink to cut the defense budget.” To anyone who thinks the antics of Code Pink, led by the extremist radical leftist Medea Benjamin, have anything in common with what King believed is delusional.

Dreier is also sure that King would be supportive of the campaign for a higher minimum wage, the anti-Walmart movement, boycotting the Gap, etc. One could just as well argue that King might have taken the time to read serious black authors like Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, and even consult with Dr. Ben Carson, and have ended up reevaluating some of his early left-leaning ideas and concepts. King, after all, was not averse to challenging his conceptions, and he might have concluded that the much-heralded Great Society programs he once favored had failed, and that new approaches had to be taken to deal with the question of poverty and the road to restoring equality of opportunity.

Professor Dreier concludes that the best way to honor King’s memory “is to continue his struggle for social justice.” That term, which should be quickly retired, is the Left’s euphemism for adhering to bankrupt liberal/left bromides that have failed to solve the very problems its adherents believe they are addressing.

Let us honor Dr. King’s heroic fight against racism in our past, and honor his desire to right the wrongs that still exist by coming up with our own programs and ideas based on conservative principles. The surest way to guarantee further defeat is to pursue the goals enunciated by Peter Dreier.