When you hear the phrase “March on Washington,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
For me, the Dr. King-led civil rights movement, symbolized by the famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Monument is what flashes across the screen of my inner HDTV.
But it was the Duke Ellington of black labor leaders, A. Phillip Randolph, who first dreamed up the Gandhi-inspired nonviolent protest tactic called “march on Washington.”
Randolph was at the height of his influence during the post-Depression years – a time when “second-class citizenship” and “American Negro” were interchangeable terms for all practical purposes.
As the war of Nazi aggression spread across Europe, U.S. planners expanded America’s wartime industrial production capacities, much like we see today with trouble brewing from the Pentagon to Pakistan, and all sorts of other places in between and beyond. The federally-regulated, privately owned defense industry didn’t allow black Americans access to this money-filled labor market.
Facing the twin demons of economic deprivation and racial discrimination, black leaders began to lobby FDR’s administration to provide some relief. Walter White of the NAACP and Randolph met with the prez to discuss the problem of discrimination in the armed forces. Nothing tangible came out of the meeting.
So, in 1941 Randolph proceeded to organize the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) whose aim was to desegregate the military-industrial complex.
In his informative book “Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi,” Sudarshan Kapur reports: “The idea of the March on Washington came to Randolph in December 1940 on a journey through the South with Milton Webster, vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.”
“Randolph turned to Webster and said, ‘I think we ought to get 10,000 Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue asking for jobs in defense plants and integration of the armed forces. It would shake up Washington.'”
News of the march preparations spurred President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order No. 8802 on June 25, 1941, giving blacks access to good-paying jobs and setting the U.S. military on the path to becoming one of the most anti-racist institutions in America far ahead of the private sector.
The leading black newspaper the New York Amsterdam News dubbed Randolph “the American Gandhi.”
Of course, as with many black cultural contributions to Americana — like Beale Street Blues years before Elvis and Boogie-down Bronx hip-hop before the Eminem phenomenon — marches on Washington have become commonplace.
Not that protest marches don’t still have a measure of symbolic importance and polemical value, if nothing else they stand as evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent direct action in changing the course of history while reminding us that this field of spiritual technology is still in its infancy.
So, seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I would like to take this time to gratefully acknowledge our black forbears for having injected Gandhism into the American body politic and giving us all an example of how political objectives can be won through nonviolent means.
The dark-side of this history must be candidly grappled with as well, one manifestation of which was COINTELPRO – a secret 1960s FBI infiltration and subversion program intended to undermine the “threat” posed by civil rights and peace organizations under the guise of counter-insurgency.
After COINTELPRO was unveiled in the 1970s, guidelines were set up to curb the FBI’s authority to infiltrate groups that assemble in churches (i.e. Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) without probable cause or evidence that a crime was being committed by one of its members.
Since 9/11 COINTELPRO-like government power is back with a vengeance. And that’s only one of many reasons why I recommend C. William Michaels new book, “No Greater Threat: America After September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State.”
It’s book is the first and only book I’m aware of that analyzes in detail the content and context of the USA Patriot Act that was passed “virtually without dissent by Congress on October 25, 2001 while the billowing smoke from the fallen World Trade Center still hung in the air.”
Persuasive arguments are laid out for how America is turning into a national security state. “A national security state need not be an overbearing dictatorship. It is extremely unlikely that America ever will reach that stage…More likely is the development of some other form, an odd mix of relentless high-tech surveillance and investigation with a compliant consumer culture and oddly familiar retro politics.”
Nevertheless, Micheals is convinced that “a full-fledged national security state of some type is on the horizon. If it materializes, it could be permanent. That would mean the end of the Constitution as we know it.”
Besides carefully delineating the “twelve common characteristics” of all societies with fascist elements, and the problematic parallels found in the USA Patriot Act, one important related question Michaels’ book raises is: is it plausible to think that such a comprehensive 130-page legal document could have been prepared in response to such a cataclysmic event that occurred just several weeks prior?
Michaels is no conspiracy theorist. So before you write him off as one, ask yourself: Have you read the USA Patriot Act? Has your Congressional rep? Do you even have time to attend to such matters? If not, what does that say about the prospects for democracy?
W.E.B. DuBois famously observed that the “problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line.” The profound irony of the 21st century may be that Americans – black, brown, yellow, red and white – will have to study black history in order to restore our cherished Constitutional freedoms.
ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist.