Malcolm X on the March on Washington, 1964

From The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books, 1964. 278-281.

      Not long ago, the black man in America was fed a dose of another form of the weakening, lulling and deluding effects of so-called "integration." It was that "Farce in Washington," I call it.

      The idea of a mass of blacks marching on Washington was originally the brainchild of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters' A. Philip Randolph. For twenty or more years the March on Washington idea had floated around among Negroes. And, spontaneously, suddenly now, that idea caught on.

      Overalled rural Southern Negroes, small town Negroes, Northern ghetto Negroes, even thousands of previously Uncle Tom Negroes began talking "March!"

      Nothing since Joe Louis had so coalesced the masses of Negroes. Groups of Negroes were talking of getting to Washington any way they could--in rickety old cars, on buses, hitch-hiking--walking, even, if they had to. They envisioned thousands of black brothers converging together upon Washington--to lie down in the streets, on airport runways, on government lawns--demanding of the Congress and the White House some concrete civil rights action.

      This was a national bitterness; militant, unorganized, and leaderless. Predominantly, it was young Negroes, defiant of whatever might be the consequences, sick and tired of the black man's neck under the white man's heel.

      The white man had plenty of good reasons for nervous worry. The right spark--some unpredictable emotional chemistry--could set off a black uprising. The government knew that thousands of milling, angry blacks not only could completely disrupt Washington--but they could erupt in Washington.

      The White House speedily invited in the major civil rights Negro "leaders." They were asked to stop the planned March. They truthfully said they hadn't begun it, they had no control over it--the idea was national, spontaneous, unorganized, and leaderless. In other words, it was a black powder keg.

      Any student of how "integration" can weaken the black man's movement was about to observe a master lesson.

      The White House, with a fanfare of international publicity, "approved," "endorsed," and "welcomed" a March on Washington. The big civil rights organizations right at this time had been publicly squabbling about donations. The New York Times had broken the story. The NAACP had charged that other agencies' demonstrations, highly publicized, had attracted a major part of the civil rights donations--while the NAACP got left holding the bag, supplying costly bail and legal talent for the other organizations' jailed demonstrators.

      It was like a movie. The next scene was the "big six" civil rights Negro "leaders" meeting in New York City with the white head of a big philanthropic agency. They were told that their money--wrangling in public was damaging their image. And a reported $800,000 was donated to a United Civil Rights Leadership council that was quickly organized by the "big six."

      Now, what had instantly achieved black unity? The white man's money. What string was attached to the money? Advice. Not only was there this donation, but another comparable sum was promised, for sometime later on, after the March. . . obviously if all went well.

      The original "angry" March on Washington was now about to be entirely changed.

      Massive international publicity projected the "big six" as March on Washington leaders. It was news to those angry grass-roots Negroes steadily adding steam to their March plans. They probably assumed that now those famous "leaders" were endorsing and joining them.

      Invited next to join the March were four famous white public figures: one Catholic, one Jew, one Protestant, and one labor boss.

      The massive publicity now gently hinted that the "big ten" would "supervise" the March on Washington's "mood," and its "direction."

      The four white figures began nodding. The word spread fast among so-called "liberal" Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and laborites: it was "democratic" to join this black March. And suddenly, the previously March--nervous whites began announcing they were going.

      It was as if electrical current shot through the ranks of bourgeois Negroes--the very so-called "middle class" and "upper class" who had earlier been deploring the March on Washington talk by grass-roots Negroes.

      But white people, now, were going to march.

      Why, some downtrodden, jobless, hungry Negroes might have gotten trampled. Those "integration"-mad Negroes practically ran over each other trying to find out where to sign up. The "angry blacks" March suddenly had been made chic. Suddenly it had a Kentucky Derby image. For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. "Were you there?" You can hear that right today.

      It had become an outing, a picnic.

      The morning of the March, any rickety carloads of angry, dusty, sweating small-town Negroes would have gotten lost among the chartered jet planes, railroad cars, and air-conditioned buses. What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as "the gentle flood."

      Talk about "integrated"! It was like salt and pepper. And, by now, there wasn't a single logistics aspect uncontrolled.

      The marchers had been instructed to bring no signs--signs were provided. They had been told to sing one song: "We Shall Overcome." They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First aid stations were strategically located--even where to faint!

      Yes, I was there. I observed that circus. Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing "We Shall Overcome. . .Suum Day. . ." while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and "I Have A Dream" speeches?

      And the black masses in America were--and still are--having a nightmare.



Houghton Mifflin Company