On this date in 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought several hundred thousand Americans together in the nation’s capital, where — depending on whom you might have asked — they had convened un support of national civil rights legislation, to chastise the Kennedy administration for its meandering commitments to racial justice, to summon young African Americans into action, or to dramatize the “Beloved Community” of which Martin Luther King, Jr., had so often spoken. Though united by a wish to rivet the nation’s attention to the cause of black freedom, the event’s organizers famously disagreed on nearly everything else. Indeed, the march has to be considered the symbolic high point of the post-war freedom struggle as well as the point at which generational, regional and tactical fault lines began to slip.

Arguably, 1963 was the most consequential moment for the civil rights movement. In this, the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the SCLC and other groups won a crucial victory in Birmingham by stuffing its jails and forcing the city to defend its apartheid with a spastic display of police violence. The effects of “Project C” — as the Birmingham campaign was known — were transformative. It brought thousands of poor, working-class, urban blacks into the struggle, and it drew greater attention to the meshed relationship between segregation per se and the broader patterns of economic and residential inequality that shaped the likes of blacks nationwide. The “package settlement” that activists won from the city of Birmingham encouraged civil rights leaders to push for what Whitney Young called a “domestic Marshall Plan” for black America. Others in the movement saw Birmingham as a template for grassroots action. In the wake of Birmingham, groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — which had pushed the tactics of the movement toward direct action and confrontation — hoped to spur a new wave of protest, especially in the urban North and West.

When President Kennedy announced his support for a federal civil rights bill in early June, a coalition of groups assembled to revive the notion — posed two decades earlier by labor organizer A. Philip Randolph — of a mass civil rights demonstration in the nation’s capital. The Kennedy administration, for its part, was terrified that “a big show at the Capitol” might accomplish precisely what its younger activists had hoped it might. Envisioning a city brought to its knees, and fearful that a march would cost him the support of whites in states like Michigan and Illinois, Kennedy pressured King to call the whole thing off. From the Justice Department Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall warned King that he his “communist” associates were jeopardizing the bill and imperiling the President’s political future. Meantime, J. Edgar Hoover helpfully offered to tap King’s phones.

Somewhat belated, JFK at last endorsed the march in July — all the better to try and contain it. “If we can’t stop it,” he huffed, “we’ll run the damn thing.” And on August 28, they more or less did. The event was rigorously scripted, and the “march” itself consisted of a short, unobtrusive walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Mindful of the fact that CBS would be broadcasting everything, the White House sought to convert the march from a black protest to an administration pep rally. Organizers were instructed to lard the crowd with as many conservatively-dressed whites as they could find, and speeches — most notably that of SNCC’s John Lewis — were trimmed of their inflammatory barbs. (To some extent, the debate over Lewis’ speech was moot. If Lewis or anyone else had, in fact, shaken their fists too vigorously, administration aides were prepared to cut the microphone and play a Mahalia Jackson record instead.) The day was a triumph of moderation.

In the intervening 45 years, the march — and King’s synecdochal address at the Lincoln Memorial — has been converted into perhaps the most recognizable expression of American civic nationalism, a day-long ode to aspirations deferred and fulfilled, a colorblind vindication of the American creed, a Lincolnesque utopia from which angry Negroes and peckerwood throwbacks alike had been effortlessly dismissed. We’ve inherited comfortable, self-congratulatory and ahistorical mythology about that day, a story easily assimilated into liberal, minor-key tales of progress as well as the obnoxious, conservative efforts to claim Martin Luther King, Jr., as an opponent of multiculturalism and affirmative action. (King’s epic speech, with the perverse assent of his own estate, has even been used to shill for fiber optic companies that manufacture components for “smart” bombs and missile “defense” systems.)

To believe in the myth, it’s necessary to forget the intra-movement rivalries that only grew in intensity after the march (and to a great extent because of it); to forget that the march failed to sway Congressional support for the civil rights bill; to forget that the march did little to enhance local civil rights organizing; to forget that the event was bracketed by white supremacist violence throughout the South (including the assassination of Medgar Evers and the obliteration of four young girls at a Birmingham church); and of course to forget that King himself lived another five years, during which time he articulated truths about his country that remain a thousand times more relevant than any words he delivered 45 years ago today.

(cross-posted at LGM)