After the March on Washington (Max Shachtman, 1963)

Submitted by AWL on 28 August, 2013 - 8:31 Author: Max Shachtman

This speech was made by Max Shachtman soon after the famous March on Washington for civil rights of 28 August 1963, and appeared in New America, the paper of the Socialist Party (USA), on 24 September 1963.

It is not the Shachtman of the 1940s and early 50s, but the call for an alliance with the labour movement is interesting and valuable.

The superb demonstration for civil rights has come to its grandiose conclusion, as you know. And we of the Socialist Party are immensely proud and gratified over its spectacular triumph.

Not because we invented this movement, not because we led this movement - we did not; but because its triumph is our triumph, as it is that of all people who cherish freedom, democracy, and human equality. Every achievement in this fight for human rights is, as we see it, a milestone on the road to that complete socialist democracy which at once our ideal and our political goal.

Our pride is sustained by the thought that today and tomorrow, as from the beginning, we have been supporters, firm and without reservation, of the civil rights movement and of its goal. I say firm and without reservation - and also without partisan interest or concern. We socialists have no "instructions", or as they say nowadays, "directives", to give the civil rights movement.

We shun such a role, in the first place. And in the second place, we have no criticism to make of a movement that has achieved so brilliant a record of success in mobilising millions, literally millions, in struggles all over the nation.

The spokesmen for the March were united in proclaiming it, at Lincoln Memorial, as only a beginning. And with the end of the March, the question naturally rises: What next?

We socialists are obliged to be true to ourselves. We are a political organisation. Politics is our means. It is our justification for existence. And I want to confine my remarks to nothing than an explanation, an explanation, of how we see the political strategy that can under these difficult circumstances multiply and speed the goal that we socialists and the civil rights movement seek in common.

The demonstrations and the battles that preceded it as surely as they will follow it have been superb, as I said, and as you well know. Now, after seven years of this brave American movement, it is time to draw up some provisional balance sheets, at the least.

What have been the results? What have been the results of this cry from the bottom of the hearts of millions of people who for a century have waited so patiently?

We now have the civil rights bill sponsored by the Administration limping along in Congress. We have many friendly statements which were not forthcoming until the Negro people in this country began to put on the pressure, the statements from the most respectable circles of this country.

There has been a little integration in the South, a little. Some airports are now available to absorb the masses of Negroes who travel by plane. There are some golflinks the large majority of Negro people can play on, just as you and I. There are some restaurants where we can have a quick coca-cola. Some jobs have been given to Negroes here and there, that's all, just a few here and a few there. And a few other things - a very few other things.

It is very considerable, I would say, as compared with what was the status quo several years ago. But it is still trivial in comparison with both the need and the aspiration. And that is the problem.

The other day I read a report in the New York Times from Los Angeles about the activity of the civil rights movement there. The civil rights movements, organisations, are combined there, as in many places, into what is called the Civil Rights Committee. It has, as do so many other civil rights organisations, an employment committee, which is headed by a man named Eugene Franklin, according to the report.

Upon being questioned by the reporter from the Times on what progress has been made, he says, "Oh yes. Everybody's issuing policy statements supporting us. But we haven't put any people to work yet".

Now, I want deliberately to exaggerate without caricaturing the reality. And say that everything - I'm exaggerating, but not by much - everything depends upon jobs.

The living standards of the Negro, unspeakably and abominably low, depend on jobs. For the Negro in particular, access to whatever educational facilities there are especially in the higher categories, depends on jobs, not on poverty.

The facilities that are available for medical care and housing - if you can call the dismal quarters reserved for most Negroes "housing" today - depend on jobs. The power which almost every group in the country has utilised to advance its interests requires the economic power is given to you by work, by jobs, by important jobs, by necessary jobs, by indispensable jobs, so that you can withdraw your power in order to enforce your demands. To the greatly underemployed Negro mass, this power is not sufficiently available without jobs.

I do not want to speak extensively on that subject that will be dealt with elsewhere, but I want to go to the next aspect of it.

Jobs, in turn, depend upon the state of the economy. You may be for jobs and I may be for jobs, but if the economy is not working, even to the extent that our dubious prosperity under American capitalism allows it to work, there will be no jobs.

There will be no jobs for the "superior" people, and if there are no jobs for the "superior" people, there will certainly be no jobs for the "inferior" people.

And the economy is in terrible shape. We are lagging behind this country, we are told, and we are lagging behind that country. In fact, sometimes the world seems to be divided between the US and the countries it is lagging behind. That's how it is in a wealthy country like this, in an unimaginably wealthy country like this, where continual mass unemployment is made even weightier by the number of resolutions and promises to liquidate it which do not change the number of unemployed. And here's where I see politics come in.

All important steps of progress in the US today, in so far as they depend upon government enactments, government initiatives, are stalled today, as yesterday, by the existence of the power of the great anonymous party in the US. That anonymous party which, though it submits no candidates formally to the electorate, is known more popularly - popularly? no, it is known more widely - as the Dixiecrat-Republican coalition.

It is not the whole evil in this country, but it is one of the most poisonous roots of the evil in this country. It is the prop, in turn of our two traditional big political parties in the US. It is the prop, in its own way, of the Administration and of the official opposition.

And existing side by side with it is an unutilised power of immense proportions, the political power of the Negro people in the US. This is not just 10% of the population, that statistic tells us nothing. It is a very important 10%, because it is a concentrated 10%.

It is 10% in the nation. But while it is not 10% in Wyoming, it is almost 50% in NY. It is not 10% of Kansas, of all such states which do not have such great importance, but it is 25% of Chicago, it is a third or so of St Louis, and so on and so forth throughout the country in the most important political and economic centres.

It is a concentrated political power, and in many centres it can be the balance of political power.

I'd like to see, if I may intrude on this subject, I would like to see the Negro people in this country, starting with a few who speedily become the great number, become imbued with an active consciousness of their tremendous political power in American society, and of how greatly all political decisions made in this country are dependent on this power and how it is exercised. And I would like to see the adoption of a political strategy by the civil rights movement, and not by it alone, which starts by putting forth as its main slogan - not the only one, but the main slogan for the present period: Drive the Dixiecrats out of power in the United States!

I have my radical moments, you know, and I would go even further. I would say: drive them out of politics altogether. But I know that's a very radical idea and I won't insist on it.

I heard the Dixiecrat spokesman on TV in the very midst of the demonstration at Lincoln Memorial, a person whose name I don't like to mention in polite and civilised society. He says he find nothing wrong in the country. Not that he has any prejudices against Negroies, but there's nothing wrong, they enjoy the greatest freedom of any people in the entire world. Now, that man has a unman form, more or less, but since he is not a civilised person he should be removed from the field of politics. For by his own admission he does not understand the first thing about what is happening in this country, and a statesman or a representative has no right to occupy a public office unless he understands at least the first thing about what's going on in the country. Drive the Dixiecrats out of power!

Now you may say: them alone? No. But from my teachers I learned the great, profound socialists and agricultural truth: every season has its vegetable. This season - drive the Dixiecrats out of power. If you succeed, and to the extent you succeed, in driving them out of power, you have broken the backbone of the Dixiecrat-Republican coalition. In itself, it is small. But due to the constellation of political forces in this country, it presents an enormous obstacle to all forms of social progress in this country.

Without the Dixiecrats, the Republicans, from the populous states of the Mid-west, from the mountains and from the deserts and from the rivers and all the other important population centres, have no significant political power in this country.

To smash the Dixiecrats will not only break the power of the coalition, it will break the backbone, as I understand it, of what is called, and this is the popular sociological term today, the power structure - I never heard this stuff when I was a kid, but it's mighty popular now - it will break the backbone of the power structure in the United Startes. Its success will lift us all onto a new stage of political revolution in the land.

You may well ask: what about the North? There are no pronounced, conspicuous, influential Dixiecrats there. That's true. But there are people who are in the same party as Dixiecrats. They are no Dixiecrats, they're civilised people. But their civilisedness is kept under extreme control. They say: "We have our differences with our Southern brothers; they are Democrats of one kind, we of another; we cannot be held responsible for them, and on occasion we vote differently from them".

To every political spokesman in the North must be put the question, and not in too polite a way - no, that sounds too bad; in a polite way, in a polite and insistent and unintermittent way - not the question: Do you differ with the Dixiecrat? but: Will you break with the Dixiecrats? Will you repudiate the Dixiecrats? Will you isolate the Dixiecrats? Will you help drive the Dixiecrats out of power? Or are your promises about liberalism, about which we have heard so much - white liberalism, and, if I may say so without offence, black liberalism - just so many nice words?

The question which demands a forthright and effective answer is this: How is that you are in the same party with Dixiecrats? They don't belong in politics. I would not, I add lest there be misunderstanding, deprive the Dixiecrats of their right to vote. I would not disenfranchise anyone. I would not take their vote away from them. But I would not give them mine. And I would not give it to any friend or colleague of the Dixiecrats. Let the Dixiecrat vote be confined exclusively to their fellow subcivilised friends. That's all. They're entitled to those. But nothing else.

I felt a keen regret a few weeks ago during the height of the Birmingham crisis, that the civil rights movement - I'm not criticising, I'm simply relating a personal feeling of keen regret - that the civil rights movement did not have a few hundred people in the city of Washington, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, to ask them: is it true that Bull Connor is the Alabama member of the Democratic National Committee? And, if it's true, what is he doing there? Why don't you repudiate him? I would have liked to see the demonstration a little smaller, so as not to interfere with the big and important ones, but I would have liked to see it.

How can you tolerate in your Democratic National Committee a man like Bull Connor? In my opinion that's political action; in my opinion that's a demonstration combined with political action.

Does that mean, does that apply to the civil rights movement alone? That would be absurd. Idealism is an indispensable thing for any movement for human dignity. But idealism by itself simply is not enough. Numbers decide. And for numbers, the civil rights movement needs a coalition of its own, a coalition to embrace wide sections of the population.

And so far as organisations of great strength are concerned, it must be with the labour movement or as large a section of the labour movement as can be persuaded or pressured into coalition with the civil rights movement.

You may say: for civil rights? a coalition with this wretched labour movement? And I'll say yes to both questions. Yes to a coalition; and yes, it is a wretched labour movement. I agree.

At the head of it at the present time stand a man who, with the courage that distinguishes leaders of men, fearlessly defied the overwhelming mass of public opinion in the United States by not endorsing the March. That is true. Isn't it miserable on civil rights, taking it on the whole and without going into details or splitting hairs? Yes. Then what is the basis for such a coalition? Simple considerations, or so it seems to me.

The disagreements that exist are maintained, the pressure of the civil rights movement on the labour movement against that which is abhorrent to all of us, remains. But an agreement on goals that both want, because both are forced, each in its own interest, to want - that is the basis for a coalition. That, in a word, and I don't have to dwell on it, is a common agreement to press for a massive works programme.

Whether they are enthusiastic or not for civil rights in the labour movement, and my suspicion is that their enthusiasm is well under control, they need in their own interests a massive public works programme because without it the unions are crippled. They're compelled to stagnate as they are stagnating now, more or less powerless to enforce their demands because at the back of every threat of a strike stand five or six million unemployed. A housing programme, medicare programme, a schools programme - the rest that all of us are familiar with - are all related to it.

The opponents of all these measures and the opponents of the civil rights movement in Congress are by and large one and the same - the same sinister Dixiecrat-Republican coalition. And therefore the coalition that we should have in mind should have them as its main immediate political target. We are unhappily aware that the labour movement is saturated with all sorts of prejudices. That's the reality. That's the reality, fine statements to the contrary notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, the alliance in my view can be realised because the labour movement now depends, to a far greater extent than it imagines, not on millions of isolated, discrete, ineffectual particles known as Negro citizens (to the extent that they are citizens), but on an organised movement.

It hope it goes without saying that I'd consider my remarks an utter failure - a failure of communication - if you understood by this idea that the demonstrations now going on should be in some way suspended. Not in the least. The pressure should not be relaxed for a moment. Without that pressure, this coalition would mean nothing except that the Negroes are sold in voting slavery again as they have been many times before, that they would lose their political independence and power.

The value of the coalition, the results it can produce, depend precisely upon maintaining this pressure, without which there would not have been as many friends to speak of (as they call them nowadays), friends of the Civil Rights Movement as there are today. This political coalition must supplement and be reinforced by the demonstrations.

The Socialist Party is a political party. I wish like so many others that it were a bigger political party, as I am convinced it will some day be. In its present condition it cannot present itself to the entire nation, everywhere, for election.

In this connection, though, I want happily to interrupt myself and say that in New York City at least we have our dear and good comrade Richard Parrish running for councilman at large, and you could not make a bigger mistake than to ignore this campaign, you could not strike a bigger, more effective blow for socialist thought and socialist politics and the civil rights movement than by piling up the most impressive vote it is possible to get for Richard Parrish.

We are a political party distinct from the political parties of power. In deciding their course, they want to know how it is going to affect property rights. Oh, naturally, naturally, they never think in terms of the property rights of the big monopolies. Not at all! They are free men, they wear no man's collar. They think in terms only of the newly-discovered fabulous paragon of free enterprise, Mrs Murphy.

We are not a party of property rights. We do not give them primacy, we do not give them secondary consideration. We are concerned with human rights. We are the party of youthful idealism, of the remaining old ones who have retained their youth and of the youth who have it and are acquiring it. We have the noble ideal that we have always had - full social equality for all, freedom from all forms of economic and political inequities and inequality. We have the ideal of abundance and security and peace and democracy for all.

We are the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, of Norman Thomas, and of the man who was cradled in it and whom you heard this morning and at the March, A Philip Randolph. And it is no wonder that our movement has produced and been led by the three great men of golden voices and golden hearts, because what made those voices ring through so many decades was our dream, our greatest of all dreams, the dream of a golden age of brotherhood of all men and women marching without fear, with head up, without hunger, without ignorance, without war, with pride in each and pride in all and the confident dignity that is appropriate to the human animal.

And to each of you and to all of you whose hearts are lifted up by the thought of participating in a fight for this gleaming goal, the party of American socialism calls you into its dedicated ranks. Thank you.

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