‘The six of us, plus the four’
Gathered on July 2, 1963, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, the six men who led the nation’s largest civil rights groups hashed out the details of the nonviolent show of force planned for late summer. In that meeting room sat the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, the SNCC’s John Lewis and the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer. The 74-year-old black union leader A. Philip Randolph was the elder statesman and march chairman who had brought them all together. They called themselves “the Big Six,” and their organizations all had interracial support but were predominantly black, as was their leadership.
With less than eight weeks before the big day, Randolph and the others decided that they would add four more leaders to their roster: Four white men were invited to join the six blacks.
It was a strategic move, says David Levering Lewis, a historian of the movement. “Unless it could be shown quite graphically, dramatically, how important it was to white people that black people wanted change, we wouldn’t have gotten there,” he says.
Letters sent out by Rustin’s team soon included a call to action on behalf of what was now the Big 10, the six black men plus a rabbi, a Catholic leader, a Protestant minister and a labor boss.
The Big Six first invited AFL-CIO President George Meany to join their ranks. Meany declined, thinking a demonstration in Washington not politically savvy while Congress was considering President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation.
The spot reserved for him was passed on to United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther, who was then a household name, having helped to unionize Detroit’s auto industry. But despite Reuther’s backing of civil rights, many of his union locals were not convinced that “one for all and all for one” and “workers unite” should apply to blackworkers. It was the same issue in liberal church denominations. The leadership pledged opposition to segregation, but Sunday in and Sunday out, churches remained segregated.
“Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us, plus the four. We became like brothers,” Lewis remembers. “When we would have disagreements, Randolph, in his deep baritone, would say things like, ‘Brothers, let’s stay together.’ ”
In the weeks before the march, the Big 10 had to work to stay together amid pressure from the Kennedy administration, which at first had disliked the idea of a march.