From the March on Washington to Pan-African Studies

Aug 21, 2013 at 5:00 am

August 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington (MOW). This fall is also the 40th anniversary of the Pan-African Studies (PAS) Department at the University of Louisville. Like many historical events and institutions, these are interestingly linked.

For the last few weeks, my friends at the Kentucky Alliance hosted a series of teach-in’s for people they have organized to travel to D.C. for the MOW commemoration. It was a great opportunity for me and Professor Ira Grupper (Bellarmine University) to place the MOW in historical context. Unfortunately, many people have reduced the March (and, in some cases, the entire civil rights movement) to four words from one man on one day: “I have a dream.” Looking at 1963 alone, we realize this is incredibly shallow. Here are just a few highlights.

A full century after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and issued on Jan. 1, 1863, America was still in racial turmoil. In early May 1963, the Children’s March took place over a number of days in Birmingham, Ala. Eventually, Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on black adults and children alike.

The scene was ghastly … and televised. Indeed, the media coverage catapulted the movement (and Martin Luther King) to the international level. What many folks don’t remember is King went to Birmingham in the first place after a miserable failed attempt to desegregate Albany, Ga. They also don’t remember that repercussions at home weren’t always good.

A few weeks after the Children’s March began, in a May 20, 1963 White House meeting on civil rights, President John F. Kennedy opined, “King is so hot that it’s like Marx coming to the White House.” Less than a month later, on June 11, Kennedy went on television to denounce racial segregation and discrimination. He was largely responding to Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s “standing in the schoolhouse door” in an attempt to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama by admitting Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood. Later that night, in the early hours of June 12, legendary activist Medgar Evers was shot to death in his Jackson, Miss., driveway.

Two months after Kennedy’s television plea, more historical dominoes fell. On Aug. 27, black intellectual titan W.E.B. DuBois died in Accra, Ghana, after maddening persecution by the U.S. government. The next day, the March on Washington took place — even though Kennedy and his administration were uncomfortable with it. This presidential discomfort was not new. Decades earlier, Franklin Roosevelt had been uncomfortable with the originally planned March on Washington in 1941, which was conceived by labor organizer Asa Phillip Randolph in protest of the segregation of American war industry jobs. That’s right — the idea for a March on Washington was not King’s, it was Randolph’s.

With only a few days remaining before the 1941 March, a worried Roosevelt capitulated. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the President’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Randolph called off the March. In its place, he converted the planned protest into the March on Washington Movement aimed at solidifying the gains and making sure the new commission lived up to its promises.

Just weeks after the 1963 March, on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young children. This was the latest in a long line of individual and community terrorist activities heaped upon black Americans. On Oct. 10, 1963, supposedly believing King had associates with communist ties, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to begin wiretapping King — unleashing J. Edgar Hoover on him less than three months after the March on Washington.

So, you see the story doesn’t begin or end on Aug. 28, 1963. The American freedom struggle is, in fact, long, complicated, troubling and exciting. To be sure, it inspired the founding of units like U of L’s Pan-African Studies Department. Since 1973, from Australopithecus Africanus to Eric Holder, PAS has studied and told these stories. Forty long years! Come celebrate that with The Jones and friends on Sept. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at U of L’s Library (Chao Auditorium) as we commemorate PAS’ 40th birthday and induct our initial Hall of Fame class. For more info, call PAS at 852-5985 or follow me on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.