- Interview by
- Benjamin Y. Fong
With the sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington coming up and a new Netflix biopic on Bayard Rustin out this November, now is an opportune time to reassess the legacy of Rustin and his mentor A. Philip Randolph, organizers of the iconic 1963 March.
A common story on the Left goes that Rustin and Randolph “sold out” after the March, having cozied up to Lyndon Johnson’s administration and drifted to the center. But the real story is far more complex, as evidenced amongst other things by the fact that it was after the march that Rustin and Randolph formulated the Freedom Budget for All Americans, a comprehensive reimagining of the federal budget that could be easily mistaken for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign platform. In an article for the forthcoming issue of Catalyst, “The Jobs and Freedom Strategy,” Benjamin Y. Fong reconstructs the strategy informing the Freedom Budget campaign, arguing that it offered a path forward for the civil rights movement of the mid-’60s and bears lessons that remain applicable to the present.
As part of the research for his Catalyst article, Fong interviewed Norman Hill, who was highly active in the civil rights movement from the earlier desegregation efforts to the post-March period. In the early 1960s, Hill was national program director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where he coordinated the campaign to desegregate restaurants along Route 40. In 1963, Hill served as staff coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From 1964 to 1967, during which time both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed, he was the legislative representative and civil rights liaison of the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. In 1967, Hill joined the A. Philip Randolph Institute as associate director under Rustin and eventually became its executive director and president, building out over two hundred chapters of the institute around the country.
Fong spoke to Hill about the arc of the civil rights movement, the legacy of Rustin and Randolph, and the lessons for the Left sixty years later. The following interview, conducted in November 2022, has been lightly edited for clarity.
You came to the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1967 from the AFL-CIO. What spurred you to make the jump?
I felt, and Bayard Rustin agreed, that it would be more effective and meaningful for me to come to work for the institute, as opposed to what I was doing at the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, where I mainly was engaged in trying to develop community unions based on the concept of organizing on economic and social grievances felt in the minority or black community.
I felt that my efforts would be more fruitful working with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in the context of effectuating what Randolph called the black-labor alliance for racial equality and economic justice. Bayard Rustin felt it was important for the civil rights movement to move from protest to politics, to engage in political action to address the problems facing blacks that were not merely racial but were economic and social.
If Rustin is known for a single phrase, it is “coalition politics,” which elicited a negative reaction from many corners. Why was that? Was coalition politics misrepresented, or was it simply not liked?
Part of what motivated the critics of coalition politics is that they didn’t view the trade union movement as a major social and political force. The peace movement, for instance, saw the labor movement, at least its top leadership, as an obstacle in terms of moving toward peace. The New Left thought the labor movement was not aggressive and militant enough. But Bayard saw the labor movement as the core, the essential element in the coalition because its economic and social program was parallel to where the civil rights organizations should be heading. That was the essential difference between Bayard’s emphasis on coalition politics and his critics.
Do you think the emerging radical critique of “Big Labor” at the time had its merits, or was it fundamentally misguided?
The critics were not very accurate in their view of the labor movement because the labor movement, especially on economic and social questions, was a major force for forward movement in terms of domestic issues. There may have been differences on foreign policy, but certainly on domestic issues the labor movement was a major force for effective action.
The hope at the time was that the labor movement and other progressive groups would support the Freedom Budget campaign, but it seemed like by 1967, support for the Freedom Budget was “vanishing into thin air,” to use Leon Keyserling’s words. Why was this?
I think there are a couple of things. First, there was no grassroots political mobilization for the Freedom Budget. Although the civil rights movement and the labor movement were generally for the Freedom Budget, they did not engage in a mass, grassroots effort to build support for the Freedom Budget. And therefore, with no key political figures in Congress committed to it, and lacking an effective grassroots political movement behind it, it resulted in a kind of stalemate.
Also, as things moved on, the coalition that Bayard and A. Philip Randolph hoped to generate around the Freedom Budget was split, or set aside, because of the disagreement and the contention over the Vietnam War, where there were different elements claiming that there could not be “guns and butter” at the same time. The peace movement’s priority was pressing for the end of the Vietnam War. It was difficult with so much money being spent on the war to generate the kind of substantial support needed in terms of action and commitment to the Freedom Budget.
You mentioned just now that there was no grassroots mobilization and also that the coalition was split over Vietnam. Had the Randolph Institute simply not committed to keeping the base activated, or did the New Left critique of the Freedom Budget have a fracturing effect? In other words, was the organizing not given enough attention, or was the project undermined as the coalition split?
I think there was a genuine lack in the mobilization effort. The kind of mobilization that took place in 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, resulting in at least a quarter of a million people marching on Washington, DC — that kind of mass mobilization in terms of political action, and the pressing of elected officials through political action, was in fact lacking. Although the labor movement was for the Freedom Budget, they were not prepared to mobilize their ranks in a grassroots effort politically in support of the Freedom Budget.
Julian Bond once said that Rustin sold his soul to the Democratic Party. Part of his and others’ critique is that Randolph and Rustin grew too close to power. Do you agree with this critique?
No, I don’t. In effect, the actual development and organization of the Freedom Budget was to press key elements in the Democratic Party to support an economic and social thrust that would lead to freedom for masses of blacks and masses of whites as well. Bayard and A. Philip Randolph were concerned about moving key elements and forces in and around the Democratic Party in support of what they thought ought to be the political, economic, and social thrust of the civil rights movement. And if that meant creating pressure on key elements in the Democratic Party, they were more than willing to do so.
That seems like part of the critique though. Some have called the Democratic Party “the graveyard of social movements.” So while Randolph and Rustin were trying to change the Democratic Party, the party was in fact changing them. Was there real possibility within the Democratic Party at the time?
I think that there was the real possibility of getting the coalition that Randolph and Bayard advocated. They were not co-opted by the Democratic Party. As an example: In the effort to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, the Kennedy-proposed legislation did not include an economic dimension; it did not include a provision to address job or economic discrimination. The civil rights movement felt this was an important area to press, even though the [John F.] Kennedy administration thought that adding a jobs dimension might jeopardize the whole legislative effort to get civil rights passed.
The civil rights movement in effect went to the labor movement, and George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, agreed that there ought to be an economic dimension to the civil rights legislation and a job discrimination section. In his testimony before Congress, he said that not only was he for the workplace discrimination provision added to the bill, but that such legislation was important in terms of the labor movement because it would give an added lever to labor leadership to address problems of discrimination in the labor movement itself.
That was an illustration of the civil rights movement not being co-opted by the Kennedy administration and the Democratic Party leadership. In fact, the civil rights and labor movements were successful in getting Title VII added to the Civil Rights legislation, and the legislation was passed in 1964 with that job and economic dimension in the legislation. So I would say that the civil rights movement and the labor movement itself was not bound to what the Democratic Party leadership was for at any given time, and that the critics on the New Left saying that the civil rights movement was co-opted is just not accurate.
The White House held a conference on Civil Rights in 1965–66. Some, like SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], dropped out of the whole planning, thinking the conference was a White House ploy. Others thought there was real possibility there, that Johnson wanted to extend the civil rights revolution. Do you think Johnson was done with civil rights at that point, or do you think he was genuinely interested in pushing forward?
I think he was still committed to extending the civil rights revolution in 1966. But soon after that he was distracted by his own commitment to an involvement in the Vietnam War. Even with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the last legislative thrust of the civil rights movement in the latter stages of the Johnson administration, what cut short Johnson’s commitment was his involvement in waging the Vietnam War.
The Freedom Budget took the position that support for it could not be limited to “doves,” and that whether or not the Vietnam War was continued, there was plenty to spend on a robust domestic program. This position was criticized by the New Left both before and after the introduction of the Freedom Budget. Do you think this was the right call, to have the Freedom Budget be unconnected to the antiwar movement, or should the Freedom Budget and the antiwar cause have been tied together?
No, I think the Freedom Budget and the antiwar cause should not have been tied together. The Freedom Budget, if it had a chance to be effectuated in the Congress, it was more likely to be done by the coalition that was not linked to the antiwar effort. This was true, although it turned out that the Freedom Budget did not pass Congress.
What is the most important thing we should remember about the Freedom Budget campaign?
The political, economic, and social framework is best articulated in an article that Bayard wrote before the Freedom Budget called “From Protest to Politics,” in which he made the case that the problems facing blacks were not merely racial but economic and social, and that as such, not just fair employment but full employment, not just integrated housing but decent and affordable housing, not just integrated education but quality education, these economic and social problems required a major allocation of resources from the government. And therefore that the civil rights movement ought to engage in political action, aggressively and militantly, to press Congress and the White House to address these economic and social problems. But that blacks, being both a numerical and racial minority, could do this best in coalition and that the essential partner in the coalition was the labor movement, which had an economic and social program to address these issues. It was in this context that the Freedom Budget was put forth.
How do we recapture the spirit of the Freedom Budget for the present. Jobs, housing, health care… all of these issues are still with us. How do we win an expansive economic program today?
The problems are still with us. What’s needed is a revival of the coalition politically, but on a much more grassroots, in-depth basis. It would take the building, organizing, and the amassing of such a movement around the basic economic and social issues that are still with us to bring about a political climate for the effectuation of an updated Freedom Budget.