On Wednesday, Aug. 28, hundreds of groups across the nation will gather to celebrate the most significant event in civil rights history since the Emancipation Proclamation. On that day, "the Great March," as it came to be known, brought 300,000 protesters to Washington, D.C., in the cause of freedom and social justice for millions of African Americans. It seems like a long, long time ago.
Like so many highly recognized events, the March on Washington did not occur as a result of some isolated event or group impulse. Not only was it carefully planned, it had been preceded by other, smaller, protests in Washington stretching back to the 1940s. Its organizers were A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and noted black activist and tactician, Bayard Rustin.
Out of racial foment throughout the country, Randolph and Rustin reached out to Dr. Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later, the leadership of key groups including a black labor organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. These groups formed an umbrella coalition, the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Together, they became known as "The Big Six."
At the time, President John F. Kennedy's rather tepid proposed civil rights legislation was stuck in Congress. Nonetheless, Kennedy disapproved of the March and urged Randolph, Rustin, King, and other members of the coalition to call it off. They refused. One of the main reasons for their refusal was that Kennedy, for purely political reasons, had become too cozy with southern Democrats, or "Dixiecrats."
In fact, it was somewhat surprising to see baseball legend Jackie Robinson weigh in on the subject. After all, Robinson was very conservative. But, in the matter of President Kennedy's opposition to the March on Washington, Robinson questioned his motives. In one of his series of letters, he wrote: