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~ 24 ~ The March on Washington When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” . . . America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” . . . And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. —martin luther king jr., from his speech at the march on washington, august 28, 1963 I n response to the continued stiffening of white resistance to desegregation, SNCC, CORE, and other young, militant civil rights organizations threatened more massive and more uncompromising protest demonstrations. In the spring of 1963, as we were beginning our District Action Project, several of these organizations had made the daring announcement that they were going to bring thousands of people to Washington during the summer and march to the White House. They pledged to stay there until they got some concrete answers to their demands for greater and more decisive federal action in halting the state government–endorsed reign of terror that plagued the South and until the federal government promised swift legislation to overrule the segregation and discrimination endorsed by state laws. The organizers threatened to close down the streets, to block Pennsylvania Avenue, and even to block the runways at the airport 210 the education of a black radical in order to effectively close the city down if they had to. This was the original idea: no more compromises, no more waiting. Needless to say, this plan sent shivers down the spines of John and Bobby Kennedy; established civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King; and the white directors of the New York–based foundations . They were all alarmed, first and foremost because they were not a part of the march and therefore had no control over what would take place. For King, it threatened his commitment to nonviolence. For Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, it threatened the compromising, peaceable, get along–go along relationship they had with whites. For the white foundation leaders who supported the NAACP, the Urban League, and Dr. King’s SCLC, the proposed march represented a deviation from the orderly, slow and steady racial progress they had been funding. SNCC especially was still viewed by these older groups as an outlaw organization, more counterproductive than progressive. So Dr. King, Wilkins, and Young joined with A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (all leaders who worked closely with organized labor) and planned a meeting with John Lewis of SNCC and James Farmer of CORE. During this time, the Kennedy administration was in continual communication with these “establishment” organizations, including the labor unions and the foundations, encouraging them to work together to stop the march. Obviously, by this time President Kennedy was no great hero of mine. I didn’t feel that the issues of black America were a high personal priority to him. He was responding to crises as they presented themselves, but he was too willing to compromise on civil rights issues to protect himself and his administration politically. I didn’t feel that he was motivated by any strong principle or that he had any great moral plan to right the wrongs of race in America; he seemed motivated to act only when it was expedient. Still, he was an appropriate symbol for the times, a youthful leader who had a sense for dramatic staging and a flare for mouthing the right rhetoric at the right time. Negroes were supposed to show sufficient appreciation for Kennedy so that other white people wouldn’t be discouraged—so they wouldn’t think that we weren’t duly thankful. But I knew that there were many things Kennedy was not addressing. So when I had to pass judgment on Kennedy’s real performance on civil rights rather than the Kennedy who was a good president and a “Friend of Black the march...


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