By Craig Simpson
The August, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a watershed moment for the modern civil rights movement. The effort galvanized upwards of 250,000 people for the largest demonstration in the city up to that time.
Sometimes called “The Great March on Washington,” it was the scene of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The groundwork for that massive march on the nation’s capital for basic civil rights was laid over the course of decades, and the symbolism of the Lincoln Memorial figured prominently in those early efforts.
A fierce debate over tactics and strategy to achieve equality raged during those years between left-leaning advocates of direct action who were based in the black working class and those more rooted among African American professionals who urged reliance on legal efforts and lobbying.
By the time of the 1963 march, it had become clear that a “Courts and Congress” strategy by itself would not bring equality.
This is the first article in a series outlining some of the prior marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for 1963 March on Washington.
1922 March Against Lynching in D.C.
Five thousand African Americans staged a silent protest march on June 14, 1922 parading past both the Capitol and the White House with placards denouncing lynching and urging a federal anti-lynching bill.
Rep. Leonidas Dyer (R-MO) sponsored a bill that was pending in the Senate to require federal penalties for those state and city officials who failed to protect against lynching, as well as those committing the act. It would also have forced counties to pay damages to the victims’ families.
Reversal of Post-Slavery Gains
By 1922, many of the gains African Americans made during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War had been reversed. And in the 45 years since the end of Reconstruction, over 3,000 black Americans had been lynched.
President Woodrow Wilson capped the drive to re-subjugate black people after his election in 1912 when he segregated most government facilities in the capital city. He told a New York Times reporter in 1914, “If colored people made the mistake of voting for me they ought to correct it.”
Black leadership was not mute during this period, but the NAACP did use the tactic of a “Silent March.” It organized the first mass demonstration by African Americans in the twentieth century when 10,000 paraded in New York City in 1917 after a brutal attack by a white mob on African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois.
A New Militancy – 1919
African American soldiers returning from World War I gave a new militancy to the fight for rights. When white mobs attacked black people in Washington, DC and Chicago in 1919, the veterans organized the armed defense of black neighborhoods.
White leaders were shocked when 10 whites, including two police officers, were killed during the clashes in Washington, compared to five black people.
Carrie Minor Johnson, a 17-year-old African American woman, became a cause celebre in black working class Washington when she and her father held off a mob of whites during the riot, then shot and killed a detective after police officers invaded their home.
Both were wounded in the shooting on the second floor of their residence and charged with murder. Charges were subsequently dropped against the father, but Carrie Johnson’s first trial resulted in a conviction for manslaughter. A second trial was granted and prosecutors dropped all charges after the new judge agreed to admit defense evidence that the young woman was in terror for her life.
In the Chicago attack, whites gained the upper hand against a fierce defense by African Americans. The official toll was 23 black people dead compared to 15 whites. A dozen blocks were destroyed in African American sections of town. Other cities and towns across the country were often overwhelmed by white mobs in the “Red Summer” of 1919, but the fighting spirit in Chicago and Washington brought hope and pride to the black communities.
James Weldon Johnson, then a field secretary for the NAACP and later the organization’s leader, wrote “In previous race riots they [African Americans] have run away and have been beaten without resistance, but now they will protect themselves.”
Chapters of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) organized by New York leader Cyril Briggs were established around the country. The ABB was organized as a semi-secret body and was a militant alternative to Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement; it favored armed self-defense of black people in this country. The ABB peaked during this period at upwards of 3,000 members in several dozen cities across the United States.
Tulsa Outrage -1921
In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, an armed group of African Americans went to the courthouse to protect a black man charged with assault of a 17-year-old white woman. A black man had been taken from the authorities’ custody in 1920 and lynched and the group was determined to prevent another murder.
As the evening went on, shots were exchanged with a white mob. Several people on both sides were killed and wounded.
One of the worst attacks against black people in the nation’s history was about to begin. Oklahoma had a strong Ku Klux Klan and hundreds of whites were organized to assault the black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood. Black ex-servicemen organized the defense, placing armed men at strategic defense points around the neighborhood.
Defenders largely held off the white mob on the evening of May 31, but they were overrun on the morning of June 1. The white mob had overwhelming numbers and firepower, including a machine gun and an airplane.
As they gained territory, the white mob systematically looted each house, business and church and then burned them to the ground, sometimes murdering the homeowners they found. The National Guard, which had been mobilized and spent the night and morning protecting white neighborhoods, moved to end the mob violence around noon.
The actual death toll is not known. Estimates ranged from 10 white and 26 black, to several hundred African American dead. The entire Greenwood section of the city was burned to the ground.
Dyer Bill – 1922
The increasing violent clashes put pressure on Republican Party leaders who still nominally advocated the rights of African Americans.
While there was no serious talk of Congress over-riding state Jim Crow laws, the campaign against lynching and the armed clashes gave new impetus to a federal anti-lynching bill that had been introduced in one form or another since 1901.
African American leaders had successfully lobbied the Republicans to include an anti-lynching plank in their party platform. In 1922, the party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.
The House of Representatives passed Dyer’s bill, strongly lobbied by the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on a 231-119 vote on January 16, 1922.
Mainstream civil rights organizations that had been leading the anti-lynching fight stepped up their tactics. In addition to the traditional meetings held in churches and letters written to newspapers and elected officials, these leaders made another foray into the street.
The Washington march included many fraternal organizations: Masons, Elks and Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows, along with veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars and World War I. Over 700 automobiles brought up the rear of the parade.
The District of Columbia march was organized by a “Committee of 100” mainly composed of D.C. residents. It featured a number of prominent women in the leadership, including Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP, Rosalie F. Cook, a member of the District’s board of education and M. A. McAdoo, head of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.
After the march, the NAACP took out full-page ads in major newspapers across the country on November 22 and 23, including the New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution. Despite the backdrop of armed clashes, the lobbying efforts, the 5,000-person march, and the follow-up ad campaign, the Dyer anti-lynching bill died in December 1922, after Senate Democrats staged a filibuster.
While similar bills were introduced in subsequent years, the Ku Klux Klan reached the height of its power in that period during the 1920s. They effectively blocked any legislation through their successful electoral program in the south and intimidation of any white official within their range of influence who considered breaking with them.
The devastating defeat of Tulsa’s armed resistance put a damper on this form of resistance and began the decline of the ABB. Briggs ultimately merged the organization with one of the two communist parties in existence at the time.
The failure of public mass pressure to result in victory during the anti-lynching campaign discouraged leaders from widespread use of this tactic during the 1920s.
It would be another ten years before African American activists again embraced the tactics of nationwide marches and demonstrations and renewed the push for federal anti-lynching legislation.
Read Part II: “Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
Read Part III: DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert
Author’s Notes: Most of the material in this article is taken from The Washington Post, The Afro American, Washington Times, Washington Star, Washington Bee, Amsterdam News, New York Times, Chicago Defender, “The Tulsa Race Riot Report” by the Oklahoma Commission and other public sources.
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.