Jobs and Freedom: The Black Revolt of 1963 and the Contested Meanings of the March on Washington
Speaker: Tom Jackson
Date: April 10, 2008
Time: 12:30 PM
Tom Jackson, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of North Carolina Greensboro
Thomas F. Jackson is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He is currently on sabbatical research leave at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. His From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) won the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award of the Organization of American Historians, "for the best book on any aspect of the civil rights struggle in United States from the nation's founding to the present." He is currently researching and writing two monographs: American Gandhi: Martin Luther King Jr. and American Political Culture, a study of how King managed his "public image" and struggled with mass media and popular frames and expectations; and The "Negro Revolt" of 1963, from which the attached paper is drawn.
How was it that a March originally imagined as a mass protest by unemployed workers for higher wages and public sector jobs became transformed into a mass rally in support of John Kennedy's civil rights bill, at least in the minds of most citizens? Why did original plans for militant civil disobedience at the Capitol turn into a one-day March to the Lincoln Memorial? In the context of widely covered mass protest in more than 100 cities, and widespread official and media predictions of violence in Washington, DC, the Kennedy administration, mainstream media outlets, and moderate elements of the civil rights coalition reigned in the March's tactics. Far-reaching demands for public works, increased and extended minimum wages, and a new federal Fair Employment Practices Commission, were widely but not entirely overlooked in press coverage. They were conspicuously absent from religious constituencies and leaders who broadened the coalition in the interest of passing the limited Kennedy bill. In the face of a clear campaign by the Kennedy administration to sell the March has an international advertisement for American democracy, many in the black freedom movement and interracial left struggled to assert that the March – and the local mass mobilizations it celebrated and supported – were the beginning and not the culmination of a revolution in economic as well as racial relations. 1963 was a crucial turning point in the development of a nuanced and varied agenda for racial and economic justice. But powerful institutions and ideological actors fixed the March – and by implication the black revolution of 1963 – in public memory as a joyous epitaph for American apartheid, instead of the radical challenge it remains.