Anger over the exoneration of Trayvon Martin’s killer will no doubt swell attendance at the August 24 rally marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It is precisely the role of Al Sharpton and the other Democrats and preachers heading up the event to channel indignation over such atrocities into support for their program of trying to prod the U.S. government—the chief overseer of the racist capitalist system—to bring justice.
It is fitting that Sharpton & Co. are celebrating the 28 August 1963 March on Washington. Officially hailed as an iconic event of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington was expressly organized to enforce the domination of the “moderate” leaders over the massive and convulsive battles for black rights. Dubbed the “farce on Washington” by Malcolm X, the event was organized in collaboration with the Kennedy White House, which wanted to stop any militant struggle in its tracks as well as to corral votes for the Democratic Party.
The main immediate aim of the March on Washington was to get a civil rights bill passed through pressuring President Kennedy. But when Kennedy called the “representative leaders” into the Oval Office, they quickly found out who was calling the shots. The destination of the march was changed from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. March leaders deleted a “statement to the president” and a call to confront Congress from the event’s official handbook. Participation was denied to “subversive” groups and speeches were censored. John Lewis, then a leader of the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and today a Georgia Congressman, was not allowed to deliver the part of his remarks criticizing the Democrats. Even the acclaimed writer James Baldwin was censored: Fearing he would extemporize, organizers would not let him read his own speech, which instead was delivered by the actor Burt Lancaster.
On November 10, some two months after the March on Washington, Malcolm X gave his famous “Message to the Grass Roots” speech in Detroit. He pointed out that it was only when militants in Birmingham, Alabama, started fighting back against racist violence and cop attacks that the government started to profess support for black people’s rights. As Malcolm put it: “And right after that Kennedy got on the television and said ‘this is a moral issue.’ That’s when he said he was going to put out a civil rights bill.” With Martin Luther King pursuing his liberal-pacifist strategy while protesters were being brutally beaten, Malcolm deemed him and the other well-known leaders “fallen idols,” a sentiment shared by many activists, both South and North.
Accounts of the mass struggle for black equality often omit the ferment that was shaking Northern cities, where for years there were protests against rat-infested housing, decrepit and segregated schools, unemployment and murderous cop terror. By the early 1960s, there were as many protests in the North and West as in the South. Over the summer of 1963, the Justice Department recorded 1,412 separate civil rights demonstrations across the country. In New York City in 1963 and ’64, thousands of Harlem residents formed tenants councils, organizing to withhold rent to force services and repairs from the slumlords.
The images of Birmingham cops unleashing attack dogs on black protesters spurred explosions of anger by Northern blacks, not just over Jim Crow in the South but also over the raw racist reality that was their own American nightmare. When a black minister addressing a Harlem rally in support of the Birmingham demonstrators intoned, “I did not come here to inflame you,” a voice in the crowd shouted out, “We want to be inflamed.”
The largest of the early Northern protests was the 23 June 1963 “Walk to Freedom March” in Detroit—an event that is barely a footnote in official histories of the civil rights movement. Organized by Rev. Albert Cleage and Rev. C.L. Franklin of the Detroit Council for Human Rights, the march was meant, in Cleage’s words, to “show people how we feel about Birmingham but also about conditions here in Detroit” (Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour ). Up to 200,000 people marched along Woodward Avenue to Cobo Arena, where King gave an early rendition of his “I have a dream” speech.
The purpose of the march was the same as that of the March on Washington two months later, with King parading at the front along with Detroit’s mayor and social-democratic auto union bureaucrat Walter Reuther. In the words of Malcolm X, they were the “clowns” leading this “circus.” But unlike the celebrity-studded, tightly censored Washington affair, it was working-class, black Detroit that was in the streets that day, and many had little sympathy for King’s “turn the other cheek” nostrums. Behind a group of children singing “We Shall Overcome” was a contingent of young men carrying a sign reading, “Negroes With Guns Shall Overcome.”
In a letter to the mayor and police commissioner following the march, King praised the Detroit cops, stating, “You have proved to the Negro citizenry of your community that you are a friend rather than an enemy.” For King’s friends in uniform, it was soon time for business as usual. On July 5, they blew away black prostitute Cynthia Scott, shooting her twice in the back and again in the stomach as she lay bleeding on the ground. After the city prosecutor called the shooting justified, 3,000 demonstrators massed outside police headquarters shouting, “Get the killer cops!”
In his “Grass Roots” speech, Malcolm X scathingly recounted how the prominent black spokesmen co-opted sentiment for a militant march in Washington at the behest of the White House, which, he said, was “scared to death” that “this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital.” Malcolm said:
“They called in [Roy] Wilkins; they called in [A. Philip] Randolph; 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.’… 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.’…
“And as they took it over, it lost its militancy…. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.
“They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song 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. And every one of those Toms was out of town by sundown.”
The liberal-led civil rights movement was able to uproot official Jim Crow segregation in the South, which had become economically outmoded and an embarrassment to the U.S. rulers internationally. But it could not tackle the pervasive oppression of the black masses that is rooted in the U.S. capitalist economy. In fact, the movement ran into a brick wall when it came North. The basic truth is that black emancipation requires sweeping capitalism away through socialist revolution.
For Marxists, Malcolm X was a contradictory figure whose political motion was uncompleted at the time of his assassination in 1965. His break from the religiosity of the Black Muslims was partial and his eclectic politics of Third Worldism and black nationalism were incapable of generating a program that could achieve black liberation. But he was hated and feared by the capitalist rulers for telling the truth about racist America. Malcolm X deeply understood that the U.S. government and its representatives, Democrats as well as Republicans, are deadly enemies of black freedom. For workers and youth today, this understanding would be a good beginning. While liberals and reformist “socialists” fawn over the 1963 March on Washington, we honor Malcolm X, who recognized bourgeois hypocrites and treacherous black “leaders” when he saw them.