Monday, August 19, 2013

The March on Washington and the End of Jim Crow

James Baldwin flew all the way from Paris and was not allowed to speak.  John Lewis had his speech altered for wondering why the U.S. government could indict civil rights activists for civil disobedience in Albany but couldn't find legal authority to bring violent racists to justice, or even just stop appointing racist judges to the bench.  His censored text pointedly inquired:  "I want to know - which side is the federal government on?"

The Kennedy Administration vetoed these words.  Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, the Catholic prelate of Washington, concurred, refusing to deliver the invocation if the speech wasn't changed.  Dr. King firmly advised the much beaten Lewis to go along with the censorship.  Other dignitaries complained about words like "masses" and "revolution."  Lewis reluctantly agreed to read a watered-down version of his speech while two Kennedy aides stood by ready to pull the plug on the microphone should he revert to his original text.

It's safe to say that James Baldwin would have been even more critical of the government had he been allowed to speak, convinced as he was that the civil rights movement was actually "the latest slave rebellion."  But most critical of all was undoubtedly Malcolm X, who dismissed the event as "the farce on Washington," to wit:

"The Negroes were out there in the streets . . . .They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington . . .That 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. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land. I'm telling you what they said. That was revolution. That was revolution. That was the black revolution."

"It was the grass roots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington D.C. to death; I was there. When they found out that this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital, they called in . . . . these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, 'Call it off.' Kennedy said, 'Look, you all are letting this thing go too far.' And Old Tom said, 'Boss, I can't stop it because I didn't start it.' I'm telling you what they said. They said, 'I'm not even in it, much less at the head of it.' They said, 'These Negroes are doing things on their own. They're running ahead of us.' And that old shrewd fox, he said, 'If you all aren't in it, I'll put you in it. I'll put you at the head of it. I'll endorse it. I'll welcome it. I'll help it. I'll join it.'"

"This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it . . . became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. . . ."

"No, it was a sellout, a takeover. They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn't make, and then told them to get out of town by sundown." 

The U.S. civil rights movement emerged from the official hypocrisy of (allegedly) fighting racism abroad (with a segregated military!) during WWII while maintaining Jim Crow at home.  In the wake of foot-dragging on the Supreme Court's desegregation  decision (1954), the hideous murder of Emmett Till (1955), and the siege of Little Rock (1957), militant disaffection and non-violent moral witness burst forth with stunning suddenness and unprecedented depth.

In Greensboro, North Carolina black students sat-in at department store lunch counters, exuding and demanding the dignity that was their due.  In Monroe, North Carolina Robert Williams called for black "armed self-reliance" years in advance of Black Power and fought off white terrorists in furious gun battles that led to his flight from the country as an FBI fugitive.  Escaping by means of a modern-day Underground Railroad to Canada and then Cuba, Williams broadcast scathing denunciations of "rump-licking Uncle Toms" and "Ku Klux Klan savages" via "Radio Free Dixie" from his sanctuary in Havana.  

In Alabama and Mississippi, pacifist "Freedom Riders" toughed out savage beatings at the hands of racist mobs to integrate public transportation.  Meanwhile, activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee faced down clubs, bullets, bombs, and jail in the deepest strongholds of the Klan, winning the franchise for all Americans a century after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Embarrassed by the screaming headlines and distressed at the propaganda advantage the Kremlin was reaping from such events, the Kennedy administration moved belatedly and reluctantly to support the black freedom movement. While peaceful protesters were beaten and jailed, and Medgar Evers was murdered on his front porch, FBI agents took notes and filed reports, but did nothing to protect the lives of black Americans.  Concerned about his support in Congress, President Kennedy moved to shore-up his Southern political base, appointing racist judges to the bench, including one in Georgia who sought to prevent "pinks, radicals and black voters" from overturning segregation, and another in Mississippi who saw no point in registering "a bunch of niggers on a voter drive."  

Yes, Jim Crow finally crumbled, but not before inflicting a century of lynchings, and the federal government only very cautiously abandoned its Dixie allies due to intense and sustained popular pressure.  Thus, the dismantling of legal discrimination heralded the growing realization that racism was not simply an anachronism of the ex-Confederate states, as many liberals had supposed, but pervaded the entire nation.  In his first northern campaign (1966) Martin Luther King was shocked by the virulence of Chicago prejudice, where ghettoization had achieved an informal apartheid every bit as formidable as legal segregation and the Citizens Councils.  At the peak of civil rights success, devastating riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and Newark made the national character of American racism dramatically plain while serving notice that its abolition demanded something more than programmatic change.  By decade's end the rhetoric of liberal inclusion and the tactics of marching, singing, and sitting-in gave way to the angry rhetoric and armed apostles of Black Power, who echoed Malcolm X's demand for freedom "by any means necessary."

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