August 28, 2013

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the author of “On the Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail” and the forthcoming “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.”

When the March on Washington took place in August 1963, I was in jail in Greenville, Miss. I had gone to Greenville as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to work with local people seeking voting rights. We didn’t expect that when high school students, hearing that “freedom riders” had come to town, would decide to hold a sit-in at the Woolworth department store.

The students were arrested. I and a fellow SNCC worker, Charles McLaurin, mounted the steps of City Hall to publicly denounce the arrests — and we were arrested, too.

My few nights in jail were restless and dreamless because you never knew what could happen to you in a Mississippi jail; even one in a “moderate” planter town such as Greenville, where the plantation owners who dominated the region disdained the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan and maintained a proud paternalism toward their black serfs. Jail does, however, concentrate your mind. You think a lot; mostly thoughts revolving around the questions “What in the world am I doing in here?” and “Can I really make a difference?”

Washington, D.C., seemed farther away than the thousand or so miles separating my jail cell and the Mall. As SNCC Mississippi project director Robert P. “Bob” Moses once put it: “When you are in Mississippi, the rest of America does not seem real. And when you are in the rest of America, Mississippi does not seem real.” Everywhere in the South, the civil rights movement faced awful violence and murder. The federal government refused to provide protection. About two months before the march, the NAACP’s Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi. Less than a month after the march, four children were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham. Dozens more were killed in other incidents. That’s why SNCC’s John Lewis asked in his speech: “How long can we be patient?

As many observe the anniversary of the 1963 march, there has been a great deal of celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and of black and white feet dangling together in the reflecting pool, while the violent climate below the Mason-Dixon line has largely been forgotten. Similarly, I fear that our country has never taken a serious look at what the march really represented — the strength of ordinary people — or viewed King’s speech for what it was: a radical insistence for justice.

When civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph began discussing a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” they wanted to shine a spotlight on the terrible economic conditions facing black Americans. From the start, though, others blunted that goal. Rustin, praised now as the organizer of the march, was viewed suspiciously in 1963 because he was homosexual and a socialist. The 74-year-old Randolph was venerated as the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, but his radical youth and still-crusty militancy were not particularly welcome in either the black establishment or the white establishment.

And so the march leadership was broadened to include religious leaders and labor leaders. Almost immediately, differences surfaced. Lewis was pressured into removing words from his speech that criticized the Kennedy administration’s civil rights proposals. Two men stood nearby as he spoke, ready to turn off the sound system and, perhaps, to physically remove him from the stage. The large-scale reduction of the march to a demonstration of support for the pending 1964 Civil Rights Act has largely excised the struggle that had made the march even possible.

The economic plight of black people, possibly the most forgotten part of the march, may be the aspect that is most relevant today. Black unemployment was twice that of whites and remains about the same today. The agricultural South was rapidly mechanizing, and blacks, for economic as well as political reasons, were fleeing the South. But many were victims of a system that had deliberately and systematically kept them ill-educated or without any education at all. Most stood little to no chance of gaining meaningful work in an industrial society.

Five of the March on Washington demands focused on labor issues, including a minimum wage act, job training and jobs for the unemployed. “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. “America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”

Today, although anti-black terrorism has lessened and segregation abolished, far too many blacks, Latinos and poor people find their future sequestered as they are told to wait with patience for attention to be paid to addressing their limited opportunities.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once said: “We’ve put Martin on this rotunda of unrelenting adulation and removed him from the struggle for economic justice. Somewhere along the way we managed to resurrect the messenger and bury the message.”

I met King only twice. Still, I know of his discomfort with his increasingly iconic status. He knew what the freedom movement was and who made it. If he were standing in the shadow of his own memorial on the Mall this weekend, I believe he would wonder what happened to his message — and where we are going now.