On June 22, 1963, President Kennedy asked A. Philip Randolph, a black labor-union leader and the main force behind the impending March on Washington, to visit him at the White House. The president wanted to convince Randolph to call off or delay the gathering. Randolph informed the president, as recounted by New Republic writer Murray Kempton, that “the choice was no longer whether Negroes came to Washington or not.” Rather, it was “between a controlled and non-violent demonstration and an uncontrolled and violent one.”
Two months later, on August 28, more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall. The day began quietly. “For the natives” of the city, declared The New York Times, “this was obviously a day of siege and the streets were being left to the marchers.” But what actually transpired was a peaceful and momentous rally—a “ceremony of reconciliation,” as Kempton put it. (There were comic moments, too: Lena Horne, scheduled to perform, went missing mid-morning. “At 10:56, the loudspeaker announced desperately that ‘we are trying to locate Miss Lena Horne,’” reported the Times.)
Before and after the march, The New Republic published pieces on the state of civil rights in America, including an appeal for strong legislation by constitutional scholar Alexander M. Bickel. But it was the Pulitzer Prize–winning Kempton—later called the “greatest of all living newspapermen” by David Remnick—who, just after the march and exactly 50 years ago, filed The New Republic’s most powerful essay. Some would later whine that it took multiple reads to untangle Kempton’s complex writing, but, as George F. Will once wrote, “Why complain about a second sip of vintage claret?”
In this piece, Kempton depicts a society on the cusp of major change.
The most consistent quality of white America's experience with the Negro is that almost nothing happens that we—or perhaps even he—expects to have happen. Faithful to that tradition, Washington waited most of the summer for the avenging Negro army to march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; what came was the largest religious pilgrimage of Americans that any of us is ever likely to see.
When it was over, Malcolm X, the Muslim, was observed in the lobby of the Statler. It had, he conceded, been something of a show. “Kennedy,” said Malcolm X, “should win the Academy Award—for direction.” Yet while the President may have triumphed as director-manipulator, he was also deftly manipulated by those whom he strove to direct.
“When the Negro leaders announced the march, the President asked them to call it off,” Bayard Rustin, its manager, remembered the next day. “When they thumbed—when they told him they wouldn’t—he almost smothered us. We had to keep raising our demands ... to keep him from getting ahead of us.”
Rustin and A. Philip Randolph are men who had to learn long ago that in order to handle they must first permit themselves to be handled. The moment in that afternoon which most strained belief was near its end, when Rustin led the assemblage in a mass pledge never to cease until they had won their demands. A radical pacifist, every sentence punctuated by his upraised hand, was calling for a $2 an hour minimum wage. Every television camera at the disposal of the networks was upon him. No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.
To produce this scene had taken some delicate maneuvering. Randolph called the march last spring at a moment when the civil rights groups had fallen into a particularly painful season of personal rancor. Randolph is unique because he accepts everyone in a movement whose members do not always accept one another. His first support came from the non-violent actionists; they hoped for passionate protest. That prospect was Randolph's weapon; the moderates had to come in or be defenseless against embarrassing disorder. Randolph welcomed them not just with benevolence but with genuine gratitude. When President Kennedy expressed his doubts, Randolph answered that some demonstration was unavoidable and that what had to be done was to make it orderly.
It was the best appeal that feeling could make to calculation. The White House knew that the ordinary Negro cherishes the Kennedy brothers and.
That the larger the assemblage the better disposed it would be not to embarrass them. When the President finally mentioned the march in public, he issued something as close as possible to a social invitation.
No labor leader since John L. Lewis in 1933 has succeeded in employing the President of the United States as an organizer. Even Lewis only sent his organizers about the pits telling the miners that the President wanted them to join the union, and was careful never to tell Mr. Roosevelt about it. Randolph got his President live, whole and direct.
If the march was important, it was because it represented an acceptance of the Negro revolt as part of the American myth, and so an acceptance of the revolutionaries into the American establishment. That acceptance, of course, carries the hope that the Negro revolt will stop where it is. Yet that acceptance is also the most powerful incentive and assurance that the revolt will continue. The children from Wilmington, North Carolina, climbed back on their buses with the shining memory of a moment when they marched with all America—a memory to sustain them when they return to march alone. So it was, too, for all the others who came from Birmingham, Montgomery, Danville, Gadsden and Jackson—places whose very names evoke not only the cause but the way it is being won.
The result of such support—the limits it placed on the spectacle—was illustrated by the experience of John Lewis, chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Lewis is only 25; his only credential for being there was combat experience; he has been arrested 22 times and beaten half as often. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is a tiny battalion, its members gray from jail and exhausted from tension. They have the gallant cynicism of troops of the line; they revere Martin Luther King (some of them) as a captain who has faced the dogs with them and they call him with affectionate irreverence, “De Lawd.” We could hardly have had this afternoon without them.
Lewis, in their spirit, had prepared a speech full of temereties about how useless the civil rights bill is and what frauds the Democrats and Republicans are. Three of the white speakers told Randolph that they could not appear at a platform where such sedition was pronounced, and John Lewis had to soften his words in deference to elders. Equal rights for the young to say their say may, perhaps, come later.
Yet Lewis’ speech, even as laundered, remained discomfiting enough to produce a significant tableau at its end. “My friends,” he said, “let us not forget that we are engaged in a significant social revolution. By and large American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromising and ally themselves with open forums of political, economic and social exploitation.” When he had finished, every Negro on the speakers’ row pumped his hand and patted his back; and every white one looked out into the distance.
So even in the middle of this ceremony of reconciliation, the void between the Negro American and a white one remained. Or rather, it did and it didn’t. At one point, Martin King mentioned with gratitude the great number of white people (about 40,000 to 50,000 out of an estimated 200,000) who had joined the march. There was little response from the platform—where it must have seemed formal courtesy—but as the sound of those words moved across the great spaces between King and the visitors from the Southern towns, there was the sudden sight and sound of Negroes cheering far away. Nothing all afternoon was quite so moving as the sight of these people, whose trust has been violated so often in the particular, proclaiming it so touchingly intact in the general.
We do not move the Negro often, it would seem, and we do it only when we are silent and just standing there. On the speakers’ stand there was the inevitable Protestant, Catholic and Jew without which no national ceremony can be certified. Is it hopeless to long for a day when the white brother will just once accept the duty to march, and forego the privilege to preach? Dr. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches told the audience that the Protestants were coming and “late we come.” It was the rarest blessing—an apology. We have begun to stoop a little; and yet it is so hard for us to leave off condescending.
We cannot move the Negro by speaking, because the public white America seems to know no words except the ones worn out from having been so long unmeant. Even if they are meant now, they have been empty too long not to sound empty still; whatever our desires, our language calls up only the memory of the long years when just the same language served only to convey indifference.
Yet the Negro moves us most when he touches our memory, even as we chill him most when we touch his. August 28 was to many whites only a demonstration of power and importance until Mahalia Jackson arose to sing the old song about having been rebuked and scorned and going home. Then King near the end began working as country preachers do, the words for the first time not as to listeners but as to participants, the intimate private conversation of invocation and response. For just those few minutes, we were back where this movement began and has endured older than the language of the society which was taking these pilgrims in, but still fresh where the newer language was threadbare.
The Negro comes from a time the rest of us have forgotten; he seems new and complicated only because he represents something so old and simple. He reminds us that the new, after which we have run so long, was back there all the time. Something new will some day be said, and it will be something permanent, if it starts from such a memory.