Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Taming a Revolt: How the 1963 March on Washington Was Fundamentally Changed

Howard Zinn, in A People's History of the United States, describes the turmoil which existed in the summer of 1963:

"Congress began reacting to the black revolt, the turmoil, the world publicity.  Civil rights laws were passed in 1957, 1960, and 1964.  They promised much, on voting equality, on employment equality, but were enforced poorly or ignored.

The federal government was trying -- without making fundamental changes -- to control an explosive situation, to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering."

Zinn quotes both black militant Malcolm X and White House adviser Arthur Schlesinger who gave essentially the same description of President Kennedy's response to the planned March on Washington:

Malcolm X:  "The Negroes were out there in the streets.  They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on the Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed...It was grass roots out there in the street.  It scared the white man to death....When they found out that this black steamroller was going to come down on the capitol, they called in ... these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, "Call it off,"  Kennedy said.  "Look you all are letting things go too far."... This is what they did with the march on Washington.  They joined it...became part of it...took it over...It ceased to be angry.  It ceased to be uncompromising.... It was a sellout.  It was a takeover."

"The accuracy of Malcolm X's caustic description of the march on Washington is corroborated in the description from the other side -- from the Establishment, by White House adviser Arthur Schlesinger, in his book "A Thousand Days."  He tells how Kennedy met with the civil rights leaders and said the march would "créate an atmosphere of instability" just when Congress was considering civil rights bills.... Schlesinger says:  'The conference with the president did persuade the civil rights leaders that they should not lay siege to Capitol Hill.'  Schlesinger describes the Washington march admiringly and then concludes:  'So in 1963 Kennedy moved to incorpórate the Negro revolution into the democratic coalition....'"

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