Monday, August 26, 2013

The Late Historian Robert Zieger on the 1963 March on Washington

Randall Stephens

From Life magazine, September 6, 1963.
Across the US and around the globe people are marking the 50th anniversary of the "Jobs and Freedom" march on Washington, D.C.  Roughly 200,000 men and women, young and old, black and white gathered to demand justice and equality on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. 

Among the throng who came together around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial were a collection of historians. (How interesting to think how this event so shaped the writing of those in attendance and many more who witnessed it from afar or learned of it years later.)  Some were soon-to-be historians or historians-in-training from the University of Maryland, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, UVA, George Washington, and others. Among the many in attendance were Clayborne Carson, Dorothy Drinkard-Hawkshawe, and Robert Zieger

From Life magazine, September 6, 1963.
Zieger, who passed away this year, was Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Florida. He was a remarkable historian, mentor, and all-around mensch.  (Read Paul Ortiz's commemoration here on the blog.)  One of Zieger's last works was For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007). Zieger wrote an essay about his experience of researching and writing the book in Historically Speaking. Here he also reflected on that day in August 1963 in D.C. Here's a brief excerpt from "Jobs and Freedom," Historically Speaking (May/June 2008):

Shortly after I had begun active work on [For Jobs and Freedom], historian John Bracey visited [the University of Florida] campus and gave a fascinating talk to students about the state of black history at the time he began graduate school at Northwestern in the early 1960s. It soon became apparent that Bracey and I were of a similar age. He recounted that in the initial syllabus for his 19th-century U.S. history seminar, there were no works by black scholars or, apart from works that dealt with slavery as a political problem, about the black experience in antebellum America. Bracey and a colleague, with the complete support of an abashed seminar director, soon rectified the omission. Bracey told this story as a way of indicating to his undergraduate student audience how far black history and race history had traveled in the four decades since.

Bracey’s experience resonated with mine, though in a different key. My advisor, Horace Samuel Merrill, and his wife, Marion Galbraith Merrill, were in those days civil rights activists in the suburban Washington, D.C., area where the University of Maryland is located. Even so, however, we read little if any black history or race history in our 20th century seminar. To be sure, some of Sam’s students, notably Thomas Cripps, were beginning to explore themes in black history. And it was certainly true that as the civil rights movement hit its high-water mark in those years, I joined my graduate student colleagues in supporting, and sometimes even in participating in it. Still, it took me far too long to understand the centrality of race to the American historical experience and to begin to incorporate the theme of race and labor into my own work.

I like to think, though, that in some subterranean precincts of my young historian’s mind the seeds of the book I would write in my late sixties were beginning to germinate. At any rate, that’s the way it appeared to me when it came time to write the introduction to For Jobs and Freedom. I chose as my starting point the fact that while I was at the August 1963 march on Washington, I left during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech:

"I still have a hard time confessing that I didn’t stay for Dr. King’s speech. As far as I was concerned, civil rights was a matter of politics and morality, not one of religion. Anyway, I had parked a long way off, it was getting late, and I had to pick up my wife at the Prince Georges County bank where she worked. So I threaded my way back through the throng lining the reflecting pool, across the Washington Monument grounds, up along Pennsylvania Avenue, the speakers’ voices growing fainter. Since I had parked on one of the side streets off East Capitol St. behind the Library of Congress (my normal haunts in those dissertation writing days), I made my way through the Capitol grounds.
From Life magazine, September 6, 1963.

It did occur to me that I should find some souvenir of the March; something to prove to my progeny and to the students to whom I planned one day to teach U.S. History that I Was There. The discarded bright orange-and-black placard lying behind a low hedge would do the trick, even if it did have a slight tear. “The UAW Says Jobs and Freedom for Every American,” it read. Since my ambition was to be a labor historian, it seemed to fill the bill perfectly.

But I will confess that I hadn’t really thought much about the “Jobs” part. Civil rights was about public accommodations, voting rights, and schools. Yes, certainly, demonstrators in southern towns and cities had demanded employment in the stores and shops. But it was the classrooms, the voting booths, and the hotels and restaurants that made the biggest headlines. Of course, an instant’s reflection affirmed, the placard was dead right: without jobs, freedom was a coin of limited value. Jobs were the modern equivalent of the Reconstruction Era’s forty acres and a mule—and we all know what happened when the freedmen were denied title to the land they and their forebears had worked for generations. Yes, it was true: all this was indeed about jobs and freedom."

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