History is a political enterprise. All who set out to chronicle the past are motivated by ends that some are honest enough to disclose, and others are deluded enough to deny.
I prepared for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Feedom by reading serious works of history. David J. Garrow’s magisterial Bearing the Cross is regarded as one of the best biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. His research is exhaustive, and his storytelling is captivating.
In his chapter on Birmingham and the March on Washington, Garrow tells the story of the march from above, through the thoughts and actions of noted leaders like King and Rustin and Randolph and Wilkins. By no means does Garrow ignore the throngs of ordinary people who descended upon the Federal City and gave the march its power, but he focuses his work on the big names and their struggles, successes, and failures.
William P. Jones’s recently published The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights focuses on the philosophy that gave birth to the march squarely within the radical, progressive politics of labor unions and their allies, who sought economic justice in the nation. I will leave it to the reader to opine about the motivations behind these two fine books.
As I reflect on the march, I am interested in the intellectual formation of those who led it and participated in it. Who taught them? What did they read? What ideas fed their activism? What fueled the critical machinery that allowed them to judge truthfully themselves, this nation, and this world?
I am clear about one fact. At the fountainhead of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the work of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and their commitment to preparing students to think clearly and to bend the world toward justice.
Would there be a King without Morehouse? A Myrlie and Medgar Evers without Alcorn A & M College? A Whitney Young without Kentucky State? A John Lewis without Fisk? A Daisy Bates without Shorter College and Philander Smith?
The ideas that undergirded the march were emblematic of the social engineering that characterized HBCUs for generations prior and in the best instances characterize HBCUs today. To be sure the HBCU is complicated, populated by scholars and students whose political ideologies are by no means monolithic.
Both Andrew Young and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame’ Toure) are sons of Howard University. Wilberforce asked Bayard Rustin to leave after he organized a strike to protest the poor quality of its cafeteria food. There are conservatives and progressives and radicals within the ranks, but liberation remains the order of the day.
Here we are 50 years later. The impetus for the Aug. 24, 2013 march has yet to subside. There is as much need for jobs and freedom in 2013 as there was in 1963. Too many of our fellow citizens lack jobs that pay living wages and the freedom necessary to move through the American maze unrestricted by caste, color, and control of the many by the moneyed few.
If America does indeed have a soul capable of redemption, the wellspring of such hope likely sits in the classrooms of Florida A & M University, my alma mater, Spelman College and North Carolina A & T State University. There, they must hear lectures by men and women of the lineage of W. E. B. DuBois and Benjamin E. Mays, of Howard W. Thurman and Mary McCleod Bethune.
The ancestors and the times are summoning these young men and women, just a few years younger than John Lewis and his SNCC peers when they began their civil rights work, to dismantle today’s injustices with new methods, new language, and new symbols.
In its own way, the HBCU made the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom possible. Today’s HBCU must make meaning of its legacy for its students, who must work tirelessly to usher in a better society and more just world.