A half-century ago this week — on Aug. 28, 1963 — a quarter-million people came to Washington to demonstrate “for Jobs and Freedom,” in the words of their slogan. It was and to this day remains the largest mass demonstration in American history, and it ended late in the day with one of the greatest speeches in American history, by Martin Luther King Jr., in which he delivered his most powerful variation on a theme he had expounded in other previous occasions. “I have a dream,” he declared, and went on: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

According to William P. Jones, “King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is justifiably remembered as the most powerful and effective address given at the March on Washington; but, taken out of context and often viewed as the only speech, it was the least representative or attentive to the specific goals and demands of the mobilization.” This is the central theme of “The March on Washington”: The powerful economic impulses of the march have been lost to view as historians emphasize the eloquence of King’s speech and its effect on the political climate as the country moved to address the questions of basic civil rights and opportunities that he articulated. Initially the march’s organizers demanded “federal jobs creation, raising the minimum wage, a Fair Employment Practice law, and support for [President John F.] Kennedy’s civil rights bill,” demands that “expanded as new groups joined.” Jones writes:

“They included a ‘comprehensive and effective’ civil rights law, which would guarantee that all Americans had access to public accommodations, ‘decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.’ The federal government was also to withhold funding from any discriminatory program, desegregate all school districts by the end of the year, enforce the Fourteenth Amendment by reducing congressional representation from states in which citizens were disfranchised, bar discrimination in housing projects supported by federal funding, and grant the attorney general authority to issue injunctions when ‘any constitutional right is violated.’ Finally, the demands included a ‘massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages,’ raising the minimum wage to ‘give all Americans a decent standard of living,’ extending the Fair Labor Standards Act to domestic service and other employment sectors that had been excluded from the law, and ‘a federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.’ ”

That was a very long shopping list, and the leaders conceded that “support for the March did ‘not necessarily indicate endorsement of every demand,’ since the list had grown too quickly for every group to ‘take an official position’ on every issue.” In other words, in order to lure as many groups as possible into the march, its organizers had pretty much allowed each group to tack its own special interests onto the list, perhaps most important organized labor, the leadership of which was almost exclusively white — ditto, though not to such an extreme degree, the membership itself — but was properly considered of great influence and its presence ardently desired. Jones, a teacher of history at the University of Wisconsin who describes himself on its Web site as having “a particular interest in race, class and work,” believes that the economic and employment aspects of the March on Washington deserve to be restored to their proper perspective and has written this book in the hope of doing so.

Jones has a solid grasp of his subject and writes lucidly, but “The March on Washington” is a peculiar and ultimately disappointing book. Whatever its title may lead the reader to expect, in fact only Chapter Five, “For Jobs and Freedom,” is devoted to the 1963 march, and it is only 38 pages long in a book with 250 pages of text. Somewhere in my journalistic apprenticeship, I worked under an editor who liked to say that a story with an interminable lead had “a long porch,” and this book has one of the longest porches I’ve ever encountered: 162 pages before it gets around to its ostensible subject. Jones obviously wants to place the march in its historical context, but he devotes so much space to hashing over events and controversies dating back more than two decades before the march that, by the time he finally gets to it, there is a considerable sense of anticlimax, all the more so since he fails to get across its incredible drama and emotional import.

‘The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights’ by William P. Jones (W. W. Norton)

On Aug. 28, 1963, a Wednesday, I was working in New York and unable to join the many New Yorkers both black and white who went to Washington by train, bus and car, but I watched on television and was powerfully moved: by the speeches of Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the musical interludes by various well-known performers, but most of all by the “I Have a Dream” speech. Earlier that year Kennedy had delivered perhaps the greatest speech of his life, a television address from the Oval Office in which he declared that “we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. . . . It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” but for all its eloquence and conviction it was pale by comparison with King’s, which appealed to the best instincts of all Americans and played a crucial role in pressing the country toward enactment of the civil rights laws of 1964 and ’65.

Jones acknowledges this in passing, but he doesn’t seem to grasp that the King speech really was the centerpiece of the March on Washington, that it has echoed and reverberated through the subsequent half-century while the other demands made during the march, important but prosaic and unrealistic, were solely of the moment. To call them and the circumstances in which they were formulated, as his subtitle does, “The Forgotten History of Civil Rights,” affords them a weight they simply never possessed.

This is not to say that the economic and employment aspects of the march didn’t matter, only that they faded away as King directed our attention to the gut issues that demanded resolution. It is useful to be reminded that Randolph, a great labor leader and civil rights advocate who is too little known today, had come within a whisker of leading a march on the nation’s capital in 1941, only months before the country entered World War II and while it was furiously mobilizing; but he was dissuaded when Franklin Roosevelt patched together a response to African American grievances that scarcely solved any problems but allowed Randolph and his allies to beat an honorable retreat from what might have been more provocative than productive.

It is especially useful to be reminded that in the years before 1963, African American women, especially those from the educated middle class, had played an essential part in laying the foundation for the civil rights movement that was then more a vision than a reality. We still remember Mary McLeod Bethune, whose original National Council of Negro Women is still on Vermont Avenue within blocks of the White House, but others have faded into history: Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Ella Baker, E. Pauline Myers and Pauli Murray, to name just four of many, get at least a measure of the recognition they deserve in this book. It is also a reminder of the sexual discrimination that pervaded the civil rights movement: “The one demand that Randolph and Rustin would not agree to was Hedgeman’s request to include representatives from women’s organizations in the leadership of the demonstration.” Some years later, it will be recalled, Stokeley Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee allegedly (and almost certainly) said, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone,” but unfortunately he had plenty of precedent.

In the end, though, what matters most is King’s great speech and the better impulses it helped awaken in the nation. It’s too bad that Jones, for all his earnestness and good intentions, fails to give King his full due.


Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten

History of Civil Rights

By William P. Jones

Norton. 296 pp. $26.95