March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr., made history, but he was also transformed by his deep family roots in the African-American Baptist church, his formative experiences in his hometown of Atlanta, his theological studies, his varied models of religious and political leadership, and his extensive network of contacts in the peace and social justice movements of his time. Although King was only 39 at the time of his death, his life was remarkable for the ways it reflected and inspired so many of the twentieth century’s major intellectual, cultural, and political developments.
On 28 August 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation’s capital. The march was successful in pressuring the administration of John F. Kennedy to initiate a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress. During this event, Martin Luther King delivered his memorable ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech.
In late 1958 Martin Luther King declined an invitation by union official Cleveland Robinson to speak in New York during Negro History Week. In his written response, he noted, “I want you to know that I have been deeply moved by your dedication and your humanitarian concern. You are doing a grand job for all of us” (King, 15 November 1958). Robinson served as one of King’s advisors on the labor movement and as a force against racism in labor unions.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Martin Luther King wrote a letter to union president Walter Reuther, congratulating him and observing: “More than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism” (King, 17 May 1961). King had a stalwart ally in Reuther, who gave critical backing to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was a supporter of King’s civil rights tactics.
A. Philip Randolph, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., called “truly the Dean of Negro leaders,” played a crucial role in gaining recognition of African Americans in labor organizations (Papers 4:527). A socialist and a paciﬁst, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the ﬁrst successful black trade union, and the Negro American Labor Council (NALC).
Founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) was the first national coalition of African American women’s organizations. The most influential national women’s organization during the civil rights movement at the time, the NCNW represented 850,000 members, including Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. In 1957 King addressed the NCNW at their annual convention, telling the women, “I have long admired this organization, its great work, and its noble purposes” (King, 9 November 1957).
A close advisor to Martin Luther King and one of the most influential and effective organizers of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was affectionately referred to as “Mr. March-on-Washington” by A. Philip Randolph (D’Emilio, 347). Rustin organized and led a number of protests in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While Rustin’s homosexuality and former affiliation with the Communist Party led some to question King’s relationship with him, King recognized the importance of Rustin’s skills and dedication to the movement. In a 1960 letter, King told a colleague: “We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value” (Papers 5:390).
The 1960 presidential campaign between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard Nixon proved to be one of the closest elections in U.S. history, and one in which Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement played a pivotal role.
In 1962, Martin Luther King wrote a letter recommending his lawyer and advisor, Clarence B. Jones, to the New York State Bar, stating: “Ever since I have known Mr. Jones, I have always seen him as a man of sound judgment, deep insights, and great dedication. I am also convinced that he is a man of great integrity” (King, 29 May 1962).
In the wake of the vicious reaction to the 1961 Freedom Rides, Negro American Labor Council (NALC) President A. Philip Randolph telegraphed Martin Luther King, pledging: “The Negro American Labor Council speaking for thousands of Negro workers is fully behind you—strong in our material and spiritual condemnation of the violence visited upon you[,] we pledge our unstinting aid” (Randolph, 23 May 1961). Founded in 1960, the NALC sought to address the failure of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to end racial discrimination in some of its unions.