In the 50 years since the 1963 March on Washington,it’s connection to the socialist movement has been largely airbrushed from history. For example, a Washington Post piece “Five myths about the March on Washington” states the march was as much about “calling on federal authorities to create ‘meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages,’” but never uses the word “socialism” to describe this.
Harold Meyerson, a liberal columnist for the Post, has no such reluctance. In a lengthy, illuminating article in the American Prospect, he explains that march was largely a product of the socialist movement. He cites a laundry list of socialist thinkers and activists as the event’s behind the scenes organizers:
(Writer Michael) Harrington’s perspective—that black equality required not just the abolition of Jim Crow but massive structural changes to the economy—wasn’t his alone. It was also that of the circle of socialists—including (Union leader A Philip) Randolph, (Bayard) Rustin, (Ella) Baker, (Rachele) Horowitz, (Tom) Kahn, the aging socialist leader Norman Thomas, and, from afar, (Dr. Martin Luther) King—in which he moved. An organization that Randolph chaired, the Negro American Labor Council, began discussing what action it could take to address the plight of urban black workers in 1961. Rustin started taking soundings for some kind of national demonstration in 1962, and in December of that year, he and Randolph began talking about a march on Washington.
So why isn’t the connection better known? Meyerson says the leaders decided to downplay the event’s socialist roots in order to gain leverage with President Kennedy. With the Cold War still raging, administration would not have been able to make any accommodation with an openly socialist movement:
As the list of sponsors and the projections of the number of marchers grew, and as the White House gave the march its wary, guarded blessing, Randolph and Rustin were compelled to diminish the militance of the protest. The two-day event was scaled back to one. The mass lobbying gave way to lobbying just by the leaders of the sponsor organizations. “Bayard always knew we would have to trade in militance for numbers,” Norman Hill recalled. Wilkins and Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, were opposed to having any civil-disobedience part of the march or rally, so such plans were dropped as well.
In time, even making the connection between the event and socialist movement became too awkward and politically incorrect for most history books. Meyerson, himself vice chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, obviously wishes this weren’t so. He’d like to reclaim the event in the name of this own movement. He laments:
[D]espite their central role in the movement that led to the extension of the franchise to Southern blacks, American socialists experienced no gains for their movement equivalent to those their European counterparts had won. While Randolph, Rustin, and King were all democratic socialists, as were many of their colleagues and lieutenants, they did not march for civil rights under a socialist banner. To have done so would have been to make the attainment of civil rights all the more difficult.