Fifty years of dreaming…

Nora Connolly

Image © Gregory F. Maxwell

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s iconic speech, made in the shadow of the Lincoln memorial, a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr King eloquently demanded freedom, a clarion call transmitted around the world; he reminded his audience that successive governments had defaulted on a promissory note. King made clear his commitment to the democratic process whilst rejecting the tranquilising drug of gradualism assuring his audience that the bank of justice was not bankrupt. Dr King made several I have dream speech`s in 1963, his Detroit version recorded by Motown. But the statement on August 28 is unique, the most memorable lines “were completely extemporaneous” the language precise the sentiment soaring. As Manning Marable points out the speech was more than a “rhetorical achievement: it was a challenge to white America to break with its racist past, and to embrace a multiracial future”. 

While Abraham Lincoln dominated the scene, the March on Washington on August 1963 was designed to draw the attention of John F Kennedy. The Democrat Party severely divided on the issue of race, its power base in the South dominated by the `Dixicrats. The civil rights movement was resurgent after the Second World War, African-American`s less inclined to accept the Jim Crow laws of the South, Nazism in a USA setting. The Democrat Party made some movement towards recognising this, under Harry Truman, who incorporated `To Secure These Rights` within the national party programme. At state level however the Dixicrats maintained the Jim Crow status quo under the constitutional cover of state-rights. Black militancy curbed by McCarthyism which marginalised the movement. Sadly, the NAACP and CORE embarked on several witch hunts of their own. Meanwhile the Civil Rights Movement in the guise of the NACCP, embarked on a legal campaign that focussed on the Supreme Court, ultimately resulting in the landmark decision of Brown leading to desegregation in Little Rock. King arrived on the scene during another campaign, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, becoming leader of the SCLC a year later.

Kennedy was linked to the liberal wing of the Democrat Party, a highly privileged individual with little understanding of the African-American experience, as his voting record in Congress prior to becoming President illustrates. During his Presidential campaign he played some part in having Dr King released from an Atlanta gaol. The subsequent electoral support from African-American`s may have made the difference in a close election. On reaching office JFK failed to pass an executive order to end discrimination in housing. Early in his tenure the civil rights movement campaigned vigorously, through sit-ins and freedom rides.  His administration`s record patchy at best however, the summer of 1963 would see a more assertive executive approach.

The campaign in Birmingham, Alabama led by Dr King was pivotal in transforming the Kennedy administrations attitude towards civil rights. A campaign of civil disobedience under the glare of the world’s media, King`s tactics had failed in Albany, Georgia (1961/62) when confronted by canny Laurie Pritchett. Although King`s approach was ideal when facing the police commissioner in Birmingham, Eugene Bull Conner, whose display of unreasonable force was witnessed by millions. This and the developing situation at the University of Alabama where George Wallace resisted a court order allowing black students to attend the institution in Tuscaloosa, prompted Kennedy to go on national media and address the civil rights movements demands. He announced it was “a moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution”. Police attacking non violent demonstrators merely demanding basic human rights didn’t play well in the context of the cold war.  The USA at the time was chastising the Soviets for its human rights record, while African-Americans in the Southern States were systematically denied the vote, economically and socially excluded. This the benevolent part of the cold war, played out in domestic politics.

Those attending the Lincoln memorial in 1963 were pushing at an open door in terms of seeking approval from Kennedy. However, Malcolm X at the time argued that King conceded too much. As Manning Marable points out, Malcolm X viewed the March as a picnic, famously describing it as the `Farce on Washington`. According to Malcolm the intention of the civil rights movement was to visit upon Washington a taste of the sit-ins and non violent disruption but this was averted. The leadership came under pressure from Kennedy to abandon the March. This it`s argued was not possible, so instead Kennedy “co-opt” the demonstration, “Malcolm`s thesis was that that the civil rights leaders were so craven and bankrupt they were duped by whites”.

Marable points out that Malcolm`s analysis was way over the top, a view endorsed by anyone who spends time listening to the August 28 speech. Although as Marable explains many on the left accepted Malcolm`s thesis, especially SNCC who “saw the event as representative of the overly cautious strategies of middle-class Negro leaders, and believed more forceful actions would be necessary to make real gains”. A view granted credence when John Lewis the SNCC`s chairman was forced to withdraw radical comments from his speech. According to Chafe the Lewis speech originally stated the civil rights workers would “march through Dixie like Sherman”. Such language Chafe points out was considered unacceptable by the various religious and trade union groups supporting the event. Leaders, who had tea with Kennedy in the White House at the end of the demonstation, were unlikely to endorse revolutionary language. Chafe points out the day was a success “it reassured white Americans of the peaceful intent of blacks and represented a masterful lobbying effort to secure civil rights legislation.” Contemporaries also disparaged Malcolm`s thesis. Most notably, his old sparring partner Baynard Rustin, who confronted Malcolm directly, regarding the absurd suggestion, that the demonstration could be derided as a picnic. But more significantly Rustin spoke immediately after King on the Washington podium and literally reinforced what King had so beautifully described, focussing on the passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill, federal initiative to address unemployment, the desegregation of schools, and an increase in the federal minimum hourly wage. This was not an Uncle Tom manifesto and Malcolm X should have listened more carefully to the dream speech.

The civil rights movement was less united after the August speech. A situation perhaps encouraged by JFK`s failure to pass his 1963 civil rights bill. LBJ pithily claimed that JFK couldn’t have got the Ten Commandments passed by Congress and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act under LBJ`s stewardship is bizarrely considered a legislative memorial to JFK. However, it was actually a monument to King and to all the forgotten people who suffered to make freedom a reality. As King said on the Washington podium undeserved suffering is redemptive and on this important anniversary, wherever you are and whatever the colour of your skin, remember let freedom ring because 1963 was a beginning not an end.  

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