As time passes, history often simplifies or even distorts events.
By Mark Woods | The Florida Times-Union | Sat, Aug 24, 2013
Christopher Columbus did sail the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. And although Paul Revere did go for a midnight ride, he wasn’t alone. Not that a couple of centuries later anyone remembers William Dawes or Samuel Prescott.
It has been 50 years since an estimated 250,000 people converged on the capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With each passing year, the story of that day becomes the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and his iconic speech.
If you have any doubts that this is what time has done with Aug. 28, 1963, look no further than what Time, the magazine, has done to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that day.
The magazine published a special “I Have a Dream” issue. The cover, with a photo of MLK Jr., says “Founding Father.” And inside there are a series of stories with the headlines: ONE MAN. ONE MARCH. ONE SPEECH. ONE DREAM.
Open the magazine and flip past some black-and-white photos of the scene on the mall to a color photo, a posed shot after the march, the Oval Office. President John F. Kennedy is standing in the middle of the men who led the march. King is in the front row, with several feet and two people between him and the president.
The caption says: “King and his lieutenants meet with Kennedy …”
The people in the photo would have chuckled at such a description — King and his lieutenants? — not because they didn’t admire King, but because there was one man who clearly had led them to this moment. One man whom they considered The Founding Father of the civil rights movement. One man who for more than two decades had been dreaming of such a march on Washington.
It wasn’t King. It was the 74-year-old man standing next to Kennedy.
Asa Philip Randolph.
He grew up on Jacksonville’s Eastside. There is a school, a park and a street named after him. A painting of him hangs in the old train depot. And this past month the City Council passed a resolution to honor his life and legacy. But even here, it’s safe to say that many people don’t know who he was or why we should remember him.
And if we’re not careful, time and Time will make him a historical footnote, the answer to a trivia question — who took the microphone after MLK? — and not the answer to a much more significant question. Who made it possible for MLK to be standing there?
Of the 17 speakers listed on the march program that day, only John Lewis, then a 23-year-old student leader, is still alive. He now is a 13-term congressman from Georgia. Reached at his office in Atlanta, he brought up the photo op in the Oval Office before being asked about it. He said he has photos from that moment, on the wall and on his desk, in his Washington office. And he mentioned where “Mr. Randolph” — to this day, that’s what Lewis calls him — was standing. Right next to the president.
“I’ve always said — and it’s not to take away from the role of Dr. King or anyone else — but without A. Philip Randolph, there wouldn’t have been a March on Washington,” Lewis said. “People should never, ever forget the role that A. Philip Randolph played. He should be looked at as one of the founding fathers of a new America, a better America.”
By August 1963, it already had been a tumultuous year. Protesters in Alabama had been met with fire hoses and police dogs. Gov. George Wallace — who had proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inauguration speech — had personally blocked the entrance to a University of Alabama building. And the next day, just hours after Kennedy had delivered a national television address in support of civil rights, Medgar Evers was assassinated at his Mississippi home.
With all of this as a backdrop, Kennedy invited several civil rights leaders to Washington for a meeting on June 22, 1963.
It was in this meeting — a little more than two months before the actual march — that one man in the room did more than bring up the idea of hundreds of thousands of people converging on the nation’s capital. Randolph told the president it was going to happen.
When Lewis recalls this moment, he doesn’t just repeat Randolph’s words. He mimicks his voice.
“He said in his baritone voice — I can get it down just like he said it,” Lewis said, taking his own already deep voice and lowering it. “Mr. President, the black masses are restless and we’re going to march on Washington.”
He recalls that Kennedy, caught off guard by this, started “moving and twisting” in his chair before saying, “Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder?” The president said he worried a march could backfire, derailing hopes of getting a civil rights bill through Congress.
Going back to Randolph’s baritone, Lewis recalled the matter-of-fact response: “Mr. Randolph said, ‘Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, non-violent protest.’ ”
One month later, in July 1963, six civil rights leaders gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. King, Randolph, Lewis, Whitney Young, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins were dubbed “The Big Six.” But Norman Hill, the staff coordinator for the march who is now 80, recalled in a phone interview from his Washington office that one man was responsible not just for bringing the six of them together, but for bringing civil rights to that point.
“A. Philip Randolph rightfully and accurately should be called the father of the modern civil rights movement,” he said.
Without him, maybe that meeting doesn’t even happen. With him, it not only happened, the six men — each strong-willed, with varied ideas about what they wanted and how to go about achieving it — managed to work together and agree on a plan for Aug. 28, 1963. They started by picking an official leader, one man who would be the director of the march. A man who wasn’t named King, but was named Asa after an Old Testament king.
“He was the only one who could hold the six of us together,” Lewis said. “Long before people used the phrase ‘check your ego at the door,’ he didn’t need to say that. There was so much respect and so much love just to be in his presence. … I’ve said it many times, if he had been born another color, or maybe in another part of the world, he would have been president or prime minister. He was a natural leader. Gifted, smart, one of a kind.”
He left Jacksonville when he was 22, moving to New York. The house where he grew up, a two-story on Jessie Street, was torn down decades ago. He married but never had children. So after his death in 1979 at age 90, his legacy was left to others. There is the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Washington and the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago. The organizations are trying to keep alive the story of how he spent 12 years organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — and how, even if you say he led the 1963 March on Washington, you’re still selling his legacy short.
He led five marches on Washington.
Before the 1963 march, Randolph led three smaller marches in the 1950s for school integration and — even more significantly — made plans for one in the 1940s that never happened.
In 1941, with blacks excluded from jobs in the defense industry, Randolph began traveling the country and rallying potential marchers with the message: “We loyal Negro American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country.”
He issued a statement saying, in part, “No propaganda could be whipped up and spread to the effect that Negroes seek to hamper defense. No charge could be made that Negroes are attempting to mar national unity. They want to do none of these things. But certainly there can be no national unity where one-tenth of the population are denied their basic rights as American citizens.”
As plans for the march grew, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Randolph to the White House. The president asked Randolph to call off the march. Randolph asked the president to issue an executive order making it mandatory that blacks be allowed to work in defense industry plants. The president said he couldn’t do that. Then, Randolph said, he couldn’t call off the march.
“How many people do you plan to bring?” Roosevelt asked.
“One hundred thousand, Mr. President,” Randolph said.
It is uncertain whether Randolph would have been able to deliver. Uncertain partly because Roosevelt eventually agreed to issue an executive order.
They went back and forth over details, with Randolph rejecting the first two drafts as too weak. When one draft was sent back, the young lawyer writing them, Joseph L. Rauh, reportedly said, “Who the hell is this guy Randolph? What the hell has he got over the president of the United States?” Rauh also reportedly later came to know and admire Randolph, saying of him: “I don’t know that I’ve met a greater man in my life.”
On June 25, 1941, six days before the march was scheduled to take place, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the government and defense industry.
In many ways, this one march — a march that never happened — was one of the many steps leading to another march that happened 22 years later.
In the past 50 years, the 18-minute speech delivered by King has only grown in stature, with some of the words carved into a 30-foot rock monument to the man in Washington, with the sound of King’s voice continuing to echo across America on a national holiday every January.
Almost forgotten is that there were other speakers and speeches that day, starting with the opening remarks delivered by Randolph.
Those who were there say while they certainly will always remember King’s speech, they haven’t forgotten Randolph’s.
Sollie Mitchell, now 95, is one of the few people in Jacksonville with personal memories of Randolph. His mother-in-law and Randolph were classmates at the Cookman Institute on Davis Street. He spent six years working with Randolph as the local secretary of the porters union. In 1963, he was a 45-year-old train attendant on the Freedom Train, which carried hundreds from Florida to Washington for the march.
When the train reached Washington and the passengers headed for the mall, Mitchell had to stay in the station and watch their belongings. But radios everywhere were tuned to it. So he heard the march, starting with the familiar voice of a man whom had eaten breakfast at his house.
“I wish you could have heard him,” Mitchell said. “The tone of his voice was different. It was like one of the movie stars.”
Randolph’s father was a minister, the founder of a church at 17th and Davis streets. According to his biographer, Jervis Anderson, the Rev. James Randolph impressed upon his sons the importance of clear speech. When he said a word like “responsibility,” with each syllable meticulously enunciated, it did more than make the word clear. “It trembled with meaning,” A. Philip Randolph once said.
Randolph’s own words — especially when combined with his ever calm, always determined demeanor — had the same effect.
“He was tall and upright,” Lewis said. “And he had this focus in his eyes, in his face. When I was growing up in rural Alabama, I would hear people praying in church and saying, ‘We gather here not for form or fashion.’ A. Philip Randolph was not for form or fashion. He was a very serious, deliberate human being.”
Lewis has another cherished photo from that day, taken long before the one in the Oval Office. It’s of some of the organizers standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Well, most of them are standing. Randolph is sitting on a chair. And he just looks like the proud, elder statesman.
In the photo, Lewis has his speech in his hand.
The day before the march, when a draft of Lewis’ speech was released, it was creating more of a stir than any other speech. In it, Lewis criticized the Kennedy administration for the civil rights bill, saying it was “too little, too late.” And he said that after the march on Washington, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.”
Even with the controversy, which included a Catholic archbishop threatening to pull out of march plans, Lewis refused to change it. He listened to the late-night pleas of some of the organizers, but wouldn’t budge. Then on the day of the march, after they climbed the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial, Randolph and King pulled him aside.
“We were sitting next to Mr. Lincoln,” Lewis recalled. “The music had already started. The people were assembling.”
King talked to him first, saying, “That doesn’t sound like you, can we change it?”
“I didn’t say yes or no,” Lewis said. “I just listened. And then Mr. Randolph said, ‘John, can we change that? We’ve come this far, let’s stay together.’ ”
Lewis changed it. When he stepped to the microphone, the line about Sherman and several others were gone.
“When I look back on it, it wasn’t just the right thing to do, I had to do it,” he said. “You couldn’t say no to Mr. Randolph. You couldn’t say no to Dr. King.”
Hours before King delivered his speech, Randolph delivered one that, Lewis says, set the tone for the day — and set a high bar for everyone else to follow.
“We’re gathered here for the longest demonstration in the history of this nation,” Randolph began in his booming baritone. “Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization or a group of organizations. We are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom. This revolution reverberates throughout the land …”
As he said a word like reverberate, it did exactly that.
It reverberated across the reflecting pool, over the masses, to the Washington Monument and beyond, trembling with meaning.
Fifty years after the march, it’s hard to fathom that when Life magazine came out the following week, the cover featured a photo of two men, neither of them Martin Luther King Jr.
“The leaders,” it said next to the image of Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
There was a moment between two men after the march that Anderson, the author who wrote biographies on both, recalled for the 25th anniversary of the march.
The crowd was dispersing and Randolph was standing alone, on an empty end of the platform. Rustin, the friend whom he had picked to handle the day-to-day organization of the event, broke away from a group, came over to Randolph, put his arm around his shoulder and said something that, combined with the scene in front of them, left the normally stoic leader with tears streaming down his face.
“Mr. Randolph, it looks like your dream has come true,” Rustin said.
Randolph, of course, had some of the same dreams for the future that King talked about in his speech. But in many ways, what happened that day was his dream. They had held a massive, peaceful march on Washington.
“He had been waiting for that day,” Lewis said. “He had been looking forward to a day when the people of America would assemble on the mall and petition the president of the United States and the members of Congress. For him, it was like a dream come true.”
Afterward, the 10 leaders of the march headed to the White House. President Kennedy was waiting at the door of the Oval Office, beaming as he greeted each of them.
They posed for photographs, with Randolph next to the president. They were tired, happy and hungry. The marchers hadn’t eaten much all day and, according to Smithsonian magazine, Randolph asked for a glass of milk.
President Kennedy, one of five presidents who would meet with Randolph, ordered food from the White House kitchen. Sandwiches, cherry cobbler, coffee. And a glass of milk for Mr. Randolph.