Union Members Help Swell Freedom Marchers’ Ranks (September 1963)
50,000 Unionists Present
Public Employee, September 1963
WASHINGTON – It was as impressive a civil rights demonstration as has ever taken place in the Nation’s Capital – or anywhere else.
Up to 50,000 trade unionists, from all across the country, participated.
AFSCME was among the more than 30 international unions and numerous locals whose signs and banners stood out prominently in the massive but orderly turnout of more than 200,000 Negro and white citizens.
It was a March for Jobs and Freedom as the thousands came to Washington to petition the government to pass the President’s civil rights bill and to take other action which, as many signs said, would mean “Freedom Now.”
Director of the March was A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the AFL-CIO. UAW President Walter P. Reuther, also an AFL-CIO vice president, was one of the 10 March leaders.
It was early morning on a brilliant, sunlit day when the first marchers arrived on the Washington Monument grounds. Their numbers grew rapidly. They were well dressed – Negroes, whites, Protestants, Catholics, Jews – each with a mission.
The March from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial started promptly at 11:30 a.m. It moved in two lines: one down Constitution Avenue and the other down Independence Avenue.
Among the signs of the Negro organizations and the church and civic groups were trade union signs and unionists marching:
Auto Workers, Meat Cutters, Central Labor bodies, Clothing Workers, Laundry Workers, Teachers, Sleeping Car Porters, Building Service Employees, Packinghouse Workers, IUE, IBEW, ILGWU, Post Office Clerks, Teamsters, Newspaper Guild, Hotel & Restaurant Employees, Government Employees, Retail & Wholesale Workers, State, County & Municipal Employees, Retail Clerks, Jewelry Workers, Machinists, Painters, Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, Seafarers, Maritime Workers, Steelworkers, Granite Cutters, Rubber Workers, Furniture Workers, Textile and Transport Workers.
Leaders of the March met with Congressional leaders before the demonstration and more than 150 Congressmen and Senators attended the Lincoln Memorial program. At the conclusion they met with President Kennedy at the White House.
The President said that the “Nation can be proud” of the demonstration which he said was a “contribution to all mankind.”
“We have witnessed in Washington tens of thousands of Americans — both Negro and white — exercising their right to assemble peaceably and direct the widest possible attention to the great national issue,” the President stated.
The March leaders spent more than an hour with the President discussing the March and the prospects for civil rights legislation. Later, food was served in the Cabinet room.
The Lincoln Memorial pro-gram brought out some of the top celebrities from the entertainment field. Singers Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson moved the great crowd with their singing of songs for freedom.
Randolph, as director of the March, was master of ceremonies.
“Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers,” he declared. “We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”
He pointed out that the opponents of civil rights legislation were usually against social legislation, saying:
“Look for the enemies of medicare, of higher minimum wage, of social security, of Federal aid to education – and there you will find the enemy of the Negro: the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate Congress. …”
Reuther told the demonstrators that “if we fail, the vacuum created by our failure will be filled with the Apostles of Hatred who will search for answers in the dark of night and reason will yield to riot and the spirit of brotherhood will yield to bitterness and bloodshed and the fabric of our free society will be torn asunder.”
He said the “struggle for civil rights is not a struggle of the Negro but a struggle for all Americans. We want freedom, not at some distant date, but freedom now.”
Leaders of the three major religious faiths spoke, as did heads of Negro organizations. James Farmer, former AFSCME organizer, and now national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, was absent. Along with 231 “freedom fighters” he was in jail in Donaldsonville, La.
Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, declared that “we expect the passage of an effective bill. … If those who support the bill will fight, as hard and as skillfully for it as the Southern opposition fights against it, victory will be ours.”
Rev. Martin Luther King asked that “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust for all white peo-ple, for many of our white brothers … have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. … We cannot walk alone.”
The marchers endorsed a ten-point program, most of which has long been urged by organized labor.
It includes demands for fair employment practices legislation, fair housing, the right to vote, full school desegregation, massive program for training of unemployed workers and a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act.