King’s speech impact less than remembered
By Philip Klinkner
The March on Washington was indeed an influential moment, but not in the way most Americans have come to believe.
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Americans have come to see the march as a turning point in our history when, inspired by the eloquence and moral urgency of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, our nation set out to make racial equality a reality for all Americans. Few of us would remember that at the time an August 1963 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans either disapproved of the march or didn’t think it would accomplish anything.
The March on Washington was indeed an influential moment, but not in the way that most Americans have come to believe. It, along with other protests and demonstrations at the time, pushed white Americans to support civil rights, not as much out of a sense of justice as much as out of a desperate desire to prevent disorder and to help win the Cold War. After all, how could America win the hearts and minds of people in Africa and Asia when non-whites at home were marching to obtain freedom and democracy for themselves?
At the time, most white Americans saw the March on Washington as a profoundly disruptive, even dangerous event, coming in the midst of an unprecedented level of racial conflict. Beginning in Birmingham, Ala. where white authorities used police dogs and fire hoses against peaceful black protesters, the summer of 1963 saw protests, riots, and demonstrations throughout the United States. According to journalist Theodore White, in the 10 weeks following the Birmingham uprising, the Department of Justice counted 758 demonstrations across the nation; during the course of the summer, there were 13,786 arrests of demonstrators in 75 cities of the 11 Southern states alone.
White Americans began to realize that blacks would no longer tolerate the status quo and were coming ever closer to the violent “fire next time” described by writer James Baldwin. Time magazine illustrated these fears with a drawing of a phalanx of angry blacks marching toward the reader. The caption read, “June 1963 — The moment seems to be now.” With this in mind, most white Americans were wary of the march.
President John F. Kennedy shared these worries. He called for Congress to pass civil rights legislation in order to meet “a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety.” Even worse, this unrest threatened social peace at home at a time when the nation faced grave Cold War threats. According to President Kennedy, “Rancor, violence, disunity and national shame can only hamper our national standing and security.”
Hoping to avoid trouble, President Kennedy met with civil rights leaders to get them to call off the march. If Kennedy had hoped that the authority of his office might help him get his way, he failed to account for the presence of A. Philip Randolph. As head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph had been at the forefront of the civil rights struggle for over 40 years and was not one to be intimidated by presidents. If anything, he intimidated them. In 1941 he used the threat of a march on Washington to pressure Franklin Roosevelt to establish a fair employment practices committee to fight discrimination in defense industries. In 1948 his threat to organize draft boycott by blacks helped push Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces. “There will be a march,” he declared to Kennedy.
With the march going on as planned, the Kennedy administration worked with civil rights leaders to make it as orderly and peaceful as possible. Nonetheless, the administration deployed thousands of troops to the city with even more on alert nearby. Most businesses shut down, the city banned liquor sales and put every available police officer on the street. The Washington Senators cancelled two of their games.
Although there was no violence and the march’s most lasting impression was the uplifting moral vision offered by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it probably failed to persuade many Americans of the morality of civil rights. In September 1963, 50% of Americans said that the Kennedy administration was pushing civil rights too fast, exactly the same percentage as before the march.
Still, white Americans also knew that King was right when he told the marchers, “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” Eventually, America passed historic civil rights legislation but less out of a commitment to American ideals than out of a desire to maintain social stability. Over the last 50 years, America has made amazing progress toward racial equality, but it has yet to fully realize Rev. King’s dream. Now as then, progress will require not just words, but constant pressure and struggle.
Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College.