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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.