Harold Meyerson has an article at the American Prospect, “The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington” which provides a concise and convincing summary of the role that socialists played in creating the March on Washington. Of course, A. Philip Randolph, the man who first conceived of such a march back during WWII was a socialist, as was Bayard Rustin, the march's lead organizer. But they were just the tip of the iceberg, as Meyerson shows:
“In 1956, when I was a student at Brooklyn College, Mike Harrington told Tom [Kahn, another Brooklyn College student] and me to go up to this office in Manhattan, on 57th Street, to work with Bayard Rustin,” Rachelle Horowitz remembers. Harrington (who was to author The Other America, which sparked the War on Poverty), Horowitz, and Kahn were all members of the Young People’s Socialist League, a democratic socialist organization of no more than several hundred members nationally.
Rustin, their elder, boasted a longer left pedigree: a brief sojourn in the Communist Party in the ’30s, then—repudiating the Communists and affiliating himself with the Socialist Party—working for socialist A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation; founding the Congress of Racial Equality with fellow socialist James Farmer in 1942; doing time in Leavenworth during World War II for protesting the segregation of the armed forces; traveling to India to study nonviolent civil disobedience with the Gandhi-ites; and endeavoring to integrate interstate bus travel in the South a decade before the Freedom Rides began (for which, during one trip, he was badly beaten).
When Harrington suggested that Horowitz and Kahn go help out Rustin, whom they’d not met before, he was organizing a national support network for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had begun just a few weeks earlier.
This was the genesis of the network of democratic socialists who seven years later were to conceive, organize, and set the themes for the March on Washington.
Of course, there's another way in which socialism contributed mightily to the March on Washington, aside from those on the inside who were indispensible in making it happen, and that is the ideological threat of socialism represented not just by Soviet Union, but by various socialist liberation movements around the world as well. In order to credibly combat such forces, the US desperately needed to change its image. The tokenism of sending jazz ambassadors around the world could only do so much. National elites who severely distrusted the civil rights movement had nonetheless increasingly come to see segregation as incompatible with the US's goals in the global competition of the Cold War, and this growing awareness in various ways helped create the social conditions in which the march could not only be mounted successfully, but could also resonate powerfully as a watershed event.
Toward the end of his piece, Meyerson writes:
Of the many reasons why socialism never became a major political tendency in the United States, as it did in Europe, is that working people—more precisely, white working men—gained the franchise here during the Jacksonian era, well before socialism had developed into a mass movement in Europe or America or anyplace else. In Europe, by contrast, it was chiefly the agitation of socialist parties in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies that led to the creation of universal manhood, and in some places womanhood, suffrage. Socialists brought ordinary Europeans the vote, which powerfully legitimated socialism for tens of millions of Europeans.
It's impossible for me to overstate the importance of this point. The myth of “classical liberalism” would have us believe that there's a unified, neat and tidy political philosophy of individual rights which stands on its own as the cornerstone of modern democracies. Modern welfare states are later developments, something ideologically distinct, at best, if not actively hostile. But historically, the notion of what constitutes an individual right evolved gradually over a long period of time, and is still evolving to this day, as we can see in the current wave of states recognizing marriage equality. There is no such thing as a timeless, unitary “classical liberalism”, it is an artificial construct. As Meyerson notes, in Europe, it was the flesh-and-blood socialists who made voting a right through decades of prolonged struggle. And as we can see from the voter suppression movement in America today, that right remains bitterly contested.
Myerson goes on to say:
No equivalent legitimation happened in America. While there had been socialist movements and sects throughout the 19th century, the American Socialist Party wasn’t founded until 1901. That party, the Communist Party, and their various offshoots attracted thousands of activists during the 20thcentury, and their most enduring and significant achievement was to have seeded and helped form the movement for civil rights that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which went beyond Kennedy’s initial proposal to also ban racial discrimination in employment) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But despite their central role in the movement that led to the extension of the franchise to Southern blacks, American socialists experienced no gains for their movement equivalent to those their European counterparts had won.
While Randolph, Rustin, and King were all democratic socialists, as were many of their colleagues and lieutenants, they did not march for civil rights under a socialist banner. To have done so would have been to make the attainment of civil rights all the more difficult. [Emphasis added]
So, socialism was absolutely crucial for attainment of civil rights, but it could not claim credit, because doing so would have been self-defeating. And yet, the fact remains: without socialists, most Europeans would never have gotten the vote, and segregation would still be the law of the land in America today. The plain reality is that no political ideology exists in a vacuum. They all exist in dynamic tension with each other, as well as with the broader historical reality. But classical liberalism is particularly given to sowing confusion because of its individualist lens and its invocation of timeless rights, both of which serve to screen out that actual interplay—even struggle—of social forces which shape the life of actual political philosophies.