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A Look Back on Media Coverage of the March on Washington

"Collective memories and historical interpretations of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom run the spectrum from liberal triumphalism to radical disillusionment. Both views distort the multiple meanings of the march," wrote Thomas F. Jackson in From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Hr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. The multiple meanings can still be seen in the 50th anniversary media coverage of the historic event. In that regard, it seems that little has changed since 1963. When Jackson surveyed news reports immediately following the march–from sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to New America– he found that the economic justice messages did not receive as much attention as spectacular aspects of the demonstrations and speeches. In this excerpt, he gives an overview of the press reaction:

From Civil Rights to Human RightsThe news media scarcely registered the economic issues. Journalists most consistently reported the violence that did not happen. "Police Precautions and Festive Spirit of Capital Keep Disorders at a Minimum" was the New York Times headline. A "gentle army" occupied the city, not "the emotional horde of angry militants that many had feared." The Wall Street Journal wondered whether a tactic "so laden with potential violence" had been worth the risk and answered, "This nation is based on representative Government, not on Government run by street mobs, disciplined or otherwise." The Pittsburgh Courier hailed the march as proof that Negro violence resulted from police repression, burying the myth that Negro crowds were violent by nature.

Despite the invisibility of the economic demands in the press and Kennedy's transparent effort to "expropriate a revolution," Tom Kahn saw a widening recognition of Reconstruction's great lesson: "there can be no political or social freedom without economic security." All the major civil rights organizations united around a set of radical economic demands for "social reconstruction," and the crowd roared its approval, he reported in the socialist New America. In an exception that proves the rule, Reg Murphy of the Atlanta Constitution detailed the economic demands. Would the administration adopt an FEPC law, "the one thing that most speakers at this giant rally stressed the most"? There was real radicalism in the minimum wage demand and the demand for Title III protections, Murphy reported. But his editor, Eugene Patterson, praised Atlanta's hometown hero, who redeemed the whole day by preaching patriotism and the leavening influence of capitalist "plenty." King had preached to the middle class their duties to enlighten and uplift black folk who were still "not far enough from the cabin to comprehend the ways that are open to them." He spoke as if opportunity was dropping like peaches from New South trees. In Patterson's encomium, Malcolm X could find the "house Negro" he took King to be.

King took pride in the fact that the March on Washington brought white America "closer into harmony with its Negro citizens than ever before." During a steamy July heat wave, Newsweek had sent out black and white survey researchers to gather reams of statistics on Negro and white attitudes. King celebrated their findings: "overwhelming majorities favored laws to guarantee
Negroes voting rights, job opportunities, good housing and integrated travel facilities … exactly the changes that the nonviolent demonstrations present as their central demands." Yet Newsweek revealed schizoid splits in America's conscience over implementation, not principles, and over black people, not Negro citizens. A minority of southern whites and a bare majority of whites nationwide approved of federal fair employment practices legislation. Regarding stereotypes about Negroes, most whites agreed that "Negroes tend to have less ambition" and "Negroes want to live off the handout."

Regardless of the media response then and now, Jackson's history of the march reminds readers that economic issues mattered to organizers as well as participants. "Working class people came by the thousands," wrote Jackson, including a contigent of white miners from Hazard, Kentucky and nine train cars of Lower East Side residents representing Mobilization for Youth. And while militants criticized organizers such as Bayard Rustin for watering down the rhetoric on the picket signs, Jackson noted that a final official slogan declared "CIVIL RIGHTS, PLUS FULL EMPLOYMENT EQUALS FREEDOM."

Thomas F. Jackson is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Hr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice is now available as an ebook as well as in paperback and hardcover.