Today is the 50th anniversary of the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Commemorations began this past Saturday when up to 100,000 people converged on the National Mall here in Washington D.C. to reaffirm the commitments made a half century ago. And this afternoon President Barack Obama will appear at the Lincoln Memorial to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech with words of his own.
Millions of Americans know of the 1963 march. But few are aware of the humanist connection.
Contrary to popular belief, the march wasn’t organized by King. It was the brainchild of a humanist named Asa Philip Randolph. As a union organizer and leader of the secular wing of the Civil Rights movement, Randolph had first planned the march for July 1941. It was to call for desegregation of the armed forces and fair working opportunities for people of color. Alarmed by organizing efforts leading up to the event, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee and desegregating the civilian war industries. So Randolph called the march off but continued his pioneering work with nonviolent civil confrontation—developing techniques that would later be adopted by King.
Then two decades later, in December 1962, Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning the historic gathering we all know, with Randolph as march director and opening speaker. Impressed with the growing support in the black community for this new March on Washington, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech on national television on June 11, 1963, calling for a Civil Rights Act. And then, fifty years ago today, a quarter of a million people filled half the National Mall, generating the political momentum needed for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his opening speech Randolph declared somewhat prophetically, “We shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours.”
Randolph went on to accept the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association in 1970 and sign Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. So on this significant anniversary, when we think of the struggles of those who worked for change, let us include in our memories one of the great humanists of the twentieth century, Asa Philip Randolph.