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Three Historians on the Legacy of the 1963 March on Washington

Today marks 59 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the most well-known in U.S. history, complex details about this march, its organizers, and its impact get left behind. The Emancipator sought out historians who bring complexity to this turning point in the story of the nation, helping us learn how our past affects our present and our future.

William Jones, Ph.D. is a historian of the 20th century United States at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

William Jones, professor of history, University of MinnesotaLISA MILLER/UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

Jones discusses how portraying the march as a nonviolent celebration of brotherhood hides just how radical it was.

“The ’63 march is remembered but I think only associated with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It’s often portrayed as a sort of peaceful demonstration of love and nonviolence. It was seen as a really dangerous event at the time. The National Guard was called out; all of the offices in Washington, D.C., closed on the day it took place. The army was staged and ready to come in with helicopters onto the National Mall and clear it out in anticipation of violence.

The demands were pretty radical. It made demands around immediate desegregation, suspending federal funding to any states that didn’t immediately desegregate. It called for an increase in the minimum wage that would in today’s dollars be [nearly $30] an hour. It called for a federal jobs creation program that would create jobs for anybody who wanted one.

It was really a very expansive set of demands.”

The success of the march brought a shift in political protesting, Jones says, popularizing the action of marching on the nation’s capital.

“The reason that we don’t see it as threatening anymore is because the ’63 march was peaceful, and they took a lot of effort to make it that way and to ensure that violence didn’t break out. The Nazi party went there to try to provoke people into conflict. And so the success of the march in some ways, made [future marches] seem less threatening.

And that’s why you see, in the ’60s, and in the ’70s, especially, the antiwar marches, the Vietnam antiwar marches, they were huge, and lots of people went to them. And it became this sort of normalized thing, like what you do when you want to call attention to an issue – you go and march on Washington. That wasn’t really the way people saw it before that.”

Read entire article at Boston Globe