On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a political rally known as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph and with the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin as its principal organizer, this march, organized by a broad coalition of civil rights, labor, and religious groups, was one of the largest political demonstrations for human rights in the history of United States. It was designed to put the political, economic, and social discrimination suffered by African Americans squarely on the national agenda. The massive turnout, the dignity and discipline of its nonviolent plea for justice, and the grandeur of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, made it a key moment in the long struggle for civil rights. Part of its legacy was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Of the many Jewish organizations that participated in the March, none brought more people to the event that day than the Jewish Labor Committee. From New York City alone, the JLC filled two railroad cars. From Philadelphia, a large contingent came in buses that were jointly chartered by the JLC and the Negro Trade Union Leadership Council. The two organizations had completely coordinated all of their March on Washington plans.
Other JLC groups came by cars, trains and planes from Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and the West Coast. All of the JLC’s field officers were actively involved in promoting the March and worked with local March committees in their communities. JLC Executive director Emanuel “Manny” Muravchik, served as an advisor to civil rights activist and March coordinator, Bayard Rustin, and was instrumental in helping to mobilize the Jewish community.
According to Rachelle Horowitz, who worked closely with Rustin to organize the March and was its transportation coordinator, Muravchik reached out to the leadership of major Jewish organizations to involve them in the March, and was Rustin’s “eyes and ears” in the Jewish community.
The JLC’s commitment to civil rights didn’t begin in 1963. From the late 1940s, it had worked to set up “Committees to Combat Intolerance” in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. It investigated labor practices in the South and protested employment discrimination in Northern cities as well. For many years it held annual civil rights conferences for labor activists. JLCers marched at Selma, Alabama and again in Memphis.
As people gather this week to honor the March on Washington at its 50th anniversary, it is particularly fitting that Bayard Rustin has just been named to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And we recall with great pride the role the JLC played in this historic event, and the many contributions the JLC has made to combat manifestations of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination and to support civil rights legislation.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, is president of the Jewish Labor Committee.