Charles Euchner’s Nobody Turn Me Around shines much needed light on the legions of individuals and institutions behind the March on Washington. Euchner offers a particularly useful window onto three issues shaping the 1963 rally: the scale of the organizing effort, the ideological and personal tensions driving march organizers, and the policies activists pressed the Kennedy Administration and Congress to enact. By centering his analysis on the people and polices driving the march, Euchner presents the rally as a fully human contrivance—the product of dedicated but nonetheless flawed people who understood the value of forging temporary alliances to achieve specific political ends.
Examining the march from the bottom-up, Euchner does much to challenge the popular, but erroneous, perception of the rally as a mere vehicle for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. To be sure, Euchner leaves little doubt as to King’s significance as the moral voice of the civil rights movement. But because King’s strength was oratorical prowess rather than organizing acumen, he is confined largely to the periphery of Euchner’s account, as the organizers are the main subjects of this study. The Big Ten—the rally’s core sponsors—are thus at the heart of Euchner’s narrative, while the pivotal figures in this people’s history of the March on Washington are, appropriately, black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and CORE founder Bayard Rustin.
Inspired by the growing economic divide separating blacks and whites, Randolph and Rustin began planning the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1962. The two longtime activists and friends soon approached labor organizations, including the NALC and UAW, as well as civil rights leaders from SCLC, CORE, SNCC, the NAACP, and the NUL with their proposal. While the heads of SCLC, the NAACP and the NUL were initially circumspect about the march, their concerns had largely faded by June 1963 when President Kennedy announced his civil rights agenda. Having shored up the base, organizers could finally take on the task of coordinating the largest rally in the nation’s history in earnest.
The organizational challenges posed by the march were, as Euchner makes clear, monumental. Hoping to iron out the kinks before the big day, civil rights and labor leaders organized a rally of 100,000 people in Detroit (June 1963) as a trial run for the planned march on the nation’s capitol. Drawing on lessons learned from the marches in the Motor City and elsewhere, Rustin, the rally’s coordinator, and staffers such as Rachel Horowitz handled myriad mundane but nonetheless critical details such as acquiring an appropriate sound system, coordinating transportation, providing sufficient numbers of toilets, training security, and policing the content of marchers’ signs. These and other activities required not just cooperation with federal, state, and local government, but they also entailed coordination with some 1,500 local civic organizations—labor unions and churches chief among them.
Euchner’s examination of the human dimensions of the march is his project’s greatest strength. By focusing on the organizers and participants, Euchner complicates the popular view that the rally and the civil rights movement in general were spawned by a high-minded moral, and thus apolitical, sense of unity. To be sure, the march’s leaders presented a united front to the world; nevertheless, organizers’ public display of solidarity, as Euchner shows, masked significant tensions. Few matters inspired as much controversy as Rustin’s leadership position within the march. A skilled and seasoned organizer who had mentored King and organized the Prayer Pilgrimages and Youth Marches on Washington in the late 1950s, Rustin was the obvious choice to coordinate the 1963 rally. His past, however, concerned some of the more conservative members of the coalition. The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins initially objected to Rustin’s leadership role on the grounds that Rustin— who was openly gay, a former member of the Communist Party, and a draft-dodger—threatened the integrity of the march. Wilkins backed down only after Randolph indicated that he would serve as march leader but Rustin would, indeed, organize the rally.
Still, other controversies revealed deep fissures within the coalition itself. March organizers had offered no prominent speaking roles to women. When Randolph and Rustin further insulted female activists by excluding them from the National Press Club, activist Pauli Murray threatened to picket Randolph himself. The speech SNCC’s John Lewis initially planned to deliver threatened Catholic support for the march. While Randolph et al ultimately persuaded Lewis to strike the objectionable passage on “patience,” their success came just hours before Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle was scheduled to appear at the rally. Tensions likewise flared on the buses transporting black and white march participants, as many African Americans remained circumspect about their white allies.
The deep coalition Rustin and Randolph forged withstood these and other challenges, as Euchner shows, partly because the organizers sought not mass catharsis—even if the march itself provided participants some emotional release—but specific political remedies to social and economic problems. Indeed, Rustin laid bare the march’s political agenda when he called upon the quarter million participants, immediately following King’s speech, to proclaim their support for: fair employment and housing legislation, desegregation of the schools, job training, implementation of 14th Amendment penalties in states that disenfranchised black voters, and denial of federal funds to discriminatory employers. March organizers, likewise, lobbied Congressmen—Republican Congressman Everett Dirsken chief among them— and President Kennedy to pursue the above legislative agenda.
The spirit of camaraderie, as Euchner concludes, faded with the march’s conclusion. Still, the rally succeeded in achieving many of its objectives, albeit with significant caveats, via the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the War on Poverty. So as the march marks the highpoint of the careers of Randolph and Rustin and is thus punctuated by a kind of sadness, this melancholy was a price for victory.
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