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March on Washington in 1941

March on Washington in 1941

In 1941Philip Randolph and Baynard Rustin began to organize a march to Washington to protest against discrimination in the defense industries. In May Randolph issued a "Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July, 1, 1941". By June estimates of the number of people expecting to participate reached 100,000. Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to persuade Randolph and Rustin call off the demonstration. When this failed, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act). As a result of this action Randolph called off his proposed march.

Negro America must bring its power and pressure to bear upon the agencies and representatives of the Federal Government to exact their rights in National Defense employment and the armed forces of the country. I suggest that ten thousand Negroes march on Washington, D. C. with the slogan: "We loyal Negro American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country." No propaganda could be whipped up and spread to the effect that Negroes seek to hamper defense. No charge could be made that Negroes are attempting to mar national unity. They want to do none of these things. On the contrary, we seek the right to play our part in advancing the cause of national defense and national unity. But certainly there can be no national unity where one tenth of the population are denied their basic rights as American citizens.

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can't live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Well, Phil, what do you want me to do?

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to do something that will enable Negro workers to get work in these plants.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Why, I surely want them to work, too. I'll call up the heads of the various defense plants and have them see to it that Negroes are given the same opportunity to work in defense plants as any other citizen in the country.

Philip Randolph: We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive, and affirmative.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: What do you mean?

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Well Phil, you know I can't do that. If I issue an executive order for you, then there'll be no end to other groups coming in here and asking me to issue executive orders for them, too. In any event, I couldn't do anything unless you called off this march of yours. Questions like this can't be settled with a sledge hammer.

Philip Randolph: I'm sorry, Mr. President, the march cannot be called off.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: How many people do you plan to bring?

Philip Randolph: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Walter, how many people will really march?

Walter White: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

Fiorello La Guardia: Gentleman, it is clear that Mr. Randolph is not going to call off the march, and I suggest we all begin to seek a formula.

The march has been called off because its main objective, namely the issuance of an Executive Order banishing discrimination in national defense, was secured. The Executive Order was issued upon the condition that the march be called off.

The March on Washington

For many Americans, the calls for racial equality and a more just society emanating from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, deeply affected their views of racial segregation and intolerance in the nation. Since the occasion of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, much has been written and discussed about the moment, its impact on society, politics and culture and particularly the profound effects of Martin Luther King's iconic speech on the hearts and minds of America and the world. Several interviewees from the Civil Rights History Project discuss their memories of this momentous event in American history.

Sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner grew up in Mississippi and became civil rights activists as teenagers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a student at Jackson State University, Dorie was expelled for participating in a civil rights demonstration. She then went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced "Snick"), a group founded in 1960 by college students who challenged segregation through sit-ins at restaurant counters, protest marches and other forms of non-violent direct action. Dorie discusses the physical harm and brutality that front-line activists endured during the summer of 1963 – jailing, beatings and even murder – leading up to the march in August. Joyce Ladner describes her shock and sorrow at hearing about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a friend since childhood, and her subsequent decision to move to New York to work with her sister and others to plan the march. Joyce worked as a fundraiser with Bayard Rustin, Rachelle Horowitz and Eleanor Holmes (now Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton) at the March headquarters in Harlem, while Dorie helped fundraise for members of SNCC to attend the march. The two sisters lived with Horowitz and Holmes for the summer. Joyce remembers long hours, hard work and "Bobby" Dylan hanging out in their apartment and playing guitar late into the night when the residents only wanted to go to sleep.

The Ladners' views of the March, like those of other activists, offer an interesting study in contrast to popular memories of the event. The latter overwhelmingly tend to dwell on the peaceful harmonious crowd of people joined together in common purpose with the dominant memory being King's majestic speech. Both Joyce and Dorie attended the March, and are quick to note that their day started off with a protest at the Justice Department over the case of colleagues in Americus, Ga., who had been jailed, weeks earlier, on false charges of sedition. The charges against SNCC's Don Harris, John Perdew and Ralph Allen, and Congress of Racial Equality activist Zev Aelony carried a maximum sentence of death. SNCC chairman John Lewis's speech later that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial criticized the Kennedy administration's refusal to intervene in this and other deadly assaults on civil rights workers and community members in the South, which caused considerable difficulties. Joyce recalls the enormous numbers of marchers and also the presence of several notable figures on the stage such as Marlon Brando and Lena Horne. Joyce goes on to talk about Lena Horne declining to be interviewed by the press and insisting instead that the young activists go on camera. As a result of Horne's insistence, Joyce was interviewed by NBC News, which made her mother proud to see her daughter on television. The Ladners contrast those memories with the shock and horror of returning to the South after the end of the March and attending the funeral of the four girls who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, just a few weeks later.

Courtland Cox was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he helped found the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) to protest segregation in the D.C. area. Members of NAG soon joined with other student groups across the nation to found SNCC. Cox was the SNCC representative to the March on Washington's steering committee. John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC and now Congressman from Georgia, was slated to deliver a speech at the March and Cox notes that he circulated a draft of Lewis' speech beforehand. The speech was an impassioned delivery in which Lewis directly confronted the Kennedy administration for its lack of commitment to enforcing civil rights law and particularly Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department for its refusal to pursue and prosecute racist assaults on activists and black Southerners. The original speech, written by a committee of SNCC activists, included the rhetorical question, "I want to know, which side is the federal government on?" Another dramatic line in the speech was this: "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own &lsquoscorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently."

Cox in his telling of the story, recounts the reaction of Patrick O'Boyle, archbishop of Washington and a Kennedy administration supporter and speaker that day, along with others in the coalition of unions and religious and civic leaders. These speakers threatened to withdraw from the march unless criticism of the administration was removed from the speech. Cox talks about SNCC's initial resistance to doing so and subsequently being persuaded by A. Philip Randolph to make changes to the speech for the sake of March unity. But the episode still rankles SNCC members today as he and Joyce Ladner attest in their interviews. Both versions of Congressman Lewis's speech are available to researchers in the James Forman papers held in the Library's Manuscript Division.

Gloria Hayes Richardson was a SNCC activist in Cambridge, Maryland. She remembers being asked to speak at the march but only on the condition that she wear a dress. In the end, she was not allowed to speak, nor were any women allowed to make a significant speech. In hindsight, she says, "it seemed to me it was turning into a big party, when a lot of us were out in the streets, you know, very threatened, when you're going to have all this music and – and a picnic."

The American Folklife Center in collaboration with Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

JHU history professor discusses the significance of the March on Washington

Image caption: The March on Washington for for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963.

Credit: Library of Congress

On Aug. 28, 1963, approximately a quarter million people converged on the nation's capital to demand civil rights for African-Americans. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the largest political rallies in history and where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. This month, on the 50th anniversary of the seminal event, another march is planned to commemorate the original gathering.

Image caption: Johns Hopkins history professor Nathan Connolly

Nathan Connolly, an assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins specializing in the intersection of civil rights and property rights in modern American history, answered questions about the event's importance as a call for economic justice and how it was a revelation for many Americans on the size and scope of the civil rights movement.

How did the march change the way the civil rights movement was viewed in America?

The March on Washington helped create a new national understanding of the problems of racial and economic injustice. For one, it brought together demonstrators from around the country to share their respective encounters with labor discrimination and state-sponsored racism. With activists from New York City, the Mississippi Delta, or Cambridge, Md., all describing their various encounters with police brutality, labor discrimination, or housing deterioration, it became very difficult to cast racial segregation as an exclusively Southern problem.

Through the mass participation of organized labor, students, religious leaders, and un-unionized domestic workers, the march also re-articulated for national and international audiences the extent to which racism and economic exploitation remained intertwined. In a planning document co-authored by Bayard Rustin, the march's chief organizers explained that, "integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation, and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists." The ability of over 200,000 marchers to organizer under such a message—peacefully and with such forceful spokespeople as Martin Luther King, Jr.—forced party politicians and more moderate political operators to respect the ability of the American Left to make clearly stated demands and generate mass support. In addition, the march helped to provide local activists with the moral authority to push back against less progressive forces in their respective home states, making 1963 a critical year, and the march itself a critical event in the transformation of local political regimes around the country.

The economic injustice is something history sometimes overlooks. Can you talk about that aspect of the movement, and the types of changes for which the march paved the way?

At the start of the 1960s, unemployment was not the principal economic problem facing black Americans underemployment was. In New Orleans, Miami, and other Southern cities, for instance, African-Americans principally occupied unskilled, menial, and servile positions in agriculture or domestic work, sometimes in proportions in excess of 80 percent. The March on Washington's organizers, therefore, asked for increases to the minimum wage, government programs for job training, increased protections against unlawful terminations, and improved access to unionized and municipal employment, which tended to carry retirement benefits, health benefits, and other employee protections.

Such demands paved the way for more robust defenses of fair employment laws and affirmative action. The March on Washington also helped give the Kennedy Administration a better appreciation of the degree to which African-Americans' grievances emerged from urban and rural underemployment as much as from more traditional "states rights" issues like voting discrimination and Jim Crow segregation. In fact, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, was able, to claim that the employment programs of the Great Society were an extension of the civil rights agenda without making any specific reference to race or African-Americans largely because the 1963 march had already reasserted the link between civil rights and economic rights. The kind of "color-blind" defenses of government aid programs witnessed during the Johnson years would become a staple of Democratic electoral and governing strategy for the subsequent 50 years.

At the same time, however, the close association of ostensibly mass economic justice movements with the realm of electoral politics actually fractured the wide-ranging coalition that the march celebrated. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, black delegates from Mississippi attempted to make good on the Johnson administration's commitment to racial and economic justice. They organized under the banner of the "Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party" and demanded that the Democratic Party's economic platform also include a denunciation of black voter suppression in Mississippi and a denial of the delegate seats at the convention for the state's regular Democratic Party delegates. On the one side, the refusal of establishment Democrats in national party leadership to respect these demands alienated a number of African-American political leaders from the party's platform. On the other side, the unwillingness of more radical black leaders to withdraw their demands angered formerly supportive white labor leaders, such as the United Auto Workers' lead organizer Walter Reuther, while also embittering Bayard Rustin and other black leaders more committed to compromise than political standoffs.


Although African Americans were legally freed from slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment, granted citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment, and men elevated to the status of citizens and were granted full voting rights by the Fifteenth Amendment in the years soon after the end of the American Civil War, after the Reconstruction era, conservative Democrats regained power and imposed many restrictions on people of color in the South. At the turn of the century, Southern states passed constitutions and laws that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, excluding them from the political system. The whites imposed social, economic, and political repression against blacks into the 1960s, under a system of legal discrimination known as Jim Crow laws, which were pervasive in the American South. Blacks suffered discrimination from private businesses as well, and most were prevented from voting, sometimes through violent means. [15] Twenty-one states prohibited interracial marriage. [16]

During the 20th century, civil rights organizers began to develop ideas for a march on Washington, DC, to seek justice. Earlier efforts to organize such a demonstration included the March on Washington Movement of the 1940s. A. Philip Randolph—the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, [7] and vice president of the AFL-CIO—was a key instigator in 1941. With Bayard Rustin, Randolph called for 100,000 black workers to march on Washington, [5] in protest of discriminatory hiring during World War II by U.S. military contractors and demanding an Executive Order to correct that. [17] Faced with a mass march scheduled for July 1, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25. [18] The order established the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and banned discriminatory hiring in the defense industry, leading to improvements for many defense workers. [19] Randolph called off the March. [20]

Randolph and Rustin continued to organize around the idea of a mass march on Washington. They envisioned several large marches during the 1940s, but all were called off (despite criticism from Rustin). [21] Their Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held at the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957, featured key leaders including Adam Clayton Powell, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Roy Wilkins. Mahalia Jackson performed. [22]

The 1963 march was part of the rapidly expanding Civil Rights Movement, which involved demonstrations and nonviolent direct action across the United States. [23] 1963 marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. Leaders represented major civil rights organizations. Members of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their differences and came together for the march. Many whites and blacks also came together in the urgency for change in the nation.

That year violent confrontations broke out in the South: in Cambridge, Maryland Pine Bluff, Arkansas Goldsboro, North Carolina Somerville, Tennessee Saint Augustine, Florida and across Mississippi. In most cases, white people attacked nonviolent demonstrators seeking civil rights. [24] Many people wanted to march on Washington, but disagreed over how the march should be conducted. Some called for a complete shutdown of the city through civil disobedience. Others argued that the civil rights movement should remain nationwide in scope, rather than focus its energies on the nation's capital and federal government. [25] There was a widespread perception that the Kennedy administration had not lived up to its promises in the 1960 election, and King described Kennedy's race policy as "tokenism". [26]

On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited African-American novelist James Baldwin, along with a large group of cultural leaders, to a meeting in New York to discuss race relations. However, the meeting became antagonistic, as black delegates felt that Kennedy did not have an adequate understanding of the race problem in the nation. The public failure of the meeting, which came to be known as the Baldwin–Kennedy meeting, underscored the divide between the needs of Black America and the understanding of Washington politicians. But the meeting also provoked the Kennedy administration to take action on the civil rights for African Americans. [27] On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy gave a notable civil rights address on national television and radio, announcing that he would begin to push for civil rights legislation. After his assassination, his proposal was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That night (early morning of June 12, 1963), Mississippi activist Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway, further escalating national tension around the issue of racial inequality. [28]

A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning the march in December 1961. They envisioned two days of protest, including sit-ins and lobbying followed by a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial. They wanted to focus on joblessness and to call for a public works program that would employ black people. In early 1963 they called publicly for "a massive March on Washington for jobs". [29] They received help from Stanley Aronowitz of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers he gathered support from radical organizers who could be trusted not to report their plans to the Kennedy administration. The unionists offered tentative support for a march that would be focused on jobs. [30]

On May 15, 1963, without securing the cooperation of the NAACP or the Urban League, Randolph announced an "October Emancipation March on Washington for Jobs". [31] He reached out to union leaders, winning the support of the UAW's Walter Reuther, but not of AFL–CIO president George Meany. [32] Randolph and Rustin intended to focus the March on economic inequality, stating in their original plan that "integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists." [33] As they negotiated with other leaders, they expanded their stated objectives to "Jobs and Freedom", to acknowledge the agenda of groups that focused more on civil rights. [34]

In June 1963, leaders from several different organizations formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, an umbrella group to coordinate funds and messaging. [35] [36] This coalition of leaders, who became known as the "Big Six", included: Randolph, chosen as titular head of the march James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [7] Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP [7] and Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League. King in particular had become well known for his role in the Birmingham campaign and for his Letter from Birmingham Jail. [37] Wilkins and Young initially objected to Rustin as a leader for the march, worried that he would attract the wrong attention because he was a homosexual, a former Communist, and a draft resister. [32] They eventually accepted Rustin as deputy organizer, on the condition that Randolph act as lead organizer and manage any political fallout. [38]

About two months before the march, the Big Six broadened their organizing coalition by bringing on board four white men who supported their efforts: Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers Eugene Carson Blake, former president of the National Council of Churches Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Together, the Big Six plus four became known as the "Big Ten." [39] [40] John Lewis later recalled, "Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us, plus the four. We became like brothers." [40]

On June 22, the organizers met with President Kennedy, who warned against creating "an atmosphere of intimidation" by bringing a large crowd to Washington. The civil rights activists insisted on holding the march. Wilkins pushed for the organizers to rule out civil disobedience and described this proposal as the "perfect compromise". King and Young agreed. Leaders from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who wanted to conduct direct actions against the Department of Justice, endorsed the protest before they were informed that civil disobedience would not be allowed. Finalized plans for the March were announced in a press conference on July 2. [41] President Kennedy spoke favorably of the March on July 17, saying that organizers planned a peaceful assembly and had cooperated with the Washington, D.C., police. [42]

Mobilization and logistics were administered by Rustin, a civil rights veteran and organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was a long-time associate of both Randolph and Dr. King. With Randolph concentrating on building the march's political coalition, Rustin built and led the team of two hundred activists and organizers who publicized the march and recruited the marchers, coordinated the buses and trains, provided the marshals, and set up and administered all of the logistic details of a mass march in the nation's capital. [43] During the days leading up to the march, these 200 volunteers used the ballroom of Washington DC radio station WUST as their operations headquarters. [44]

The march was not universally supported among civil rights activists. Some, including Rustin (who assembled 4,000 volunteer marshals from New York), were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement. [45] The march was condemned by Malcolm X, spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who termed it the "farce on Washington". [46]

March organizers disagreed about the purpose of the march. The NAACP and Urban League saw it as a gesture of support for the civil rights bill that had been introduced by the Kennedy Administration. Randolph, King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) believed it could raise both civil rights and economic issues to national attention beyond the Kennedy bill. CORE and SNCC believed the march could challenge and condemn the Kennedy administration's inaction and lack of support for civil rights for African Americans. [5]

Despite their disagreements, the group came together on a set of goals:

  • Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation
  • Immediate elimination of school segregation (the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education
  • A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed
  • A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring
  • A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide (equivalent to $17 in 2020)
  • Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination
  • Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens
  • A Fair Labor Standards Act broadened to include employment areas then excluded
  • Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights of citizens are violated. [47]

Although in years past, Randolph had supported "Negro only" marches, partly to reduce the impression that the civil rights movement was dominated by white communists, organizers in 1963 agreed that whites and blacks marching side by side would create a more powerful image. [48]

The Kennedy Administration cooperated with the organizers in planning the March, and one member of the Justice Department was assigned as a full-time liaison. [49] Chicago and New York City (as well as some corporations) agreed to designate August 28 as "Freedom Day" and give workers the day off. [50]

To avoid being perceived as radical, organizers rejected support from Communist groups. However, some politicians claimed that the March was Communist-inspired, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) produced numerous reports suggesting the same. [51] [52] In the days before August 28, the FBI called celebrity backers to inform them of the organizers' communist connections and advising them to withdraw their support. [53] When William C. Sullivan produced a lengthy report on August 23 suggesting that Communists had failed to appreciably infiltrate the civil rights movement, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover rejected its contents. [54] Strom Thurmond launched a prominent public attack on the March as Communist, and singled out Rustin in particular as a Communist and a gay man. [55]

Organizers worked out of a building at West 130th St. and Lenox in Harlem. [56] They promoted the march by selling buttons, featuring two hands shaking, the words "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", a union bug, and the date August 28, 1963. By August 2, they had distributed 42,000 of the buttons. Their goal was a crowd of at least 100,000 people. [50]

As the march was being planned, activists across the country received bomb threats at their homes and in their offices. The Los Angeles Times received a message saying its headquarters would be bombed unless it printed a message calling the president a "Nigger Lover". Five airplanes were grounded on the morning of August 28 due to bomb threats. A man in Kansas City telephoned the FBI to say he would put a hole between King's eyes the FBI did not respond. Roy Wilkins was threatened with assassination if he did not leave the country. [57]

Thousands traveled by road, rail, and air to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, August 28. Marchers from Boston traveled overnight and arrived in Washington at 7am after an eight-hour trip, but others took much longer bus rides from cities such as Milwaukee, Little Rock, and St. Louis. Organizers persuaded New York's MTA to run extra subway trains after midnight on August 28, and the New York City bus terminal was busy throughout the night with peak crowds. [58] A total of 450 buses left New York City from Harlem. Maryland police reported that "by 8:00 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel." [59] The United Automobile Workers financed bus transportation for 5,000 of its rank-and-file members, providing the largest single contingent from any organization. [60]

One reporter, Fred Powledge, accompanied African Americans who boarded six buses in Birmingham, Alabama, for the 750-mile trip to Washington. The New York Times carried his report:

The 260 demonstrators, of all ages, carried picnic baskets, water jugs, Bibles and a major weapon - their willingness to march, sing and pray in protest against discrimination. They gathered early this morning [August 27] in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, where state troopers once [four months previous in May] used fire hoses and dogs to put down their demonstrations. It was peaceful in the Birmingham park as the marchers waited for the buses. The police, now part of a moderate city power structure, directed traffic around the square and did not interfere with the gathering . An old man commented on the 20-hour ride, which was bound to be less than comfortable: "You forget we Negroes have been riding buses all our lives. We don't have the money to fly in airplanes."

John Marshall Kilimanjaro, a demonstrator traveling from Greensboro, North Carolina, said: [61]

Contrary to the mythology, the early moments of the March—getting there—was no picnic. People were afraid. We didn't know what we would meet. There was no precedent. Sitting across from me was a black preacher with a white collar. He was an AME preacher. We talked. Every now and then, people on the bus sang 'Oh Freedom' and 'We Shall Overcome,' but for the most part there wasn't a whole bunch of singing. We were secretly praying that nothing violent happened.

Other bus rides featured racial tension, as black activists criticized liberal white participants as fair-weather friends. [62]

Hazel Mangle Rivers, who had paid $8 for her ticket—"one-tenth of her husband's weekly salary"—was quoted in the August 29 New York Times. Rivers said that she was impressed by Washington's civility:

The people are lots better up here than they are down South. They treat you much nicer. Why, when I was out there at the march a white man stepped on my foot, and he said, "Excuse me," and I said "Certainly!" That's the first time that has ever happened to me. I believe that was the first time a white person has ever really been nice to me. [47]

Some participants who arrived early held an all-night vigil outside the Department of Justice, claiming it had unfairly targeted civil rights activists and that it had been too lenient on white supremacists who attacked them. [63]

Security preparations Edit

The Washington, D.C., police forces were mobilized to full capacity for the march, including reserve officers and deputized firefighters. A total of 5,900 police officers were on duty. [64] The government mustered 2,000 men from the National Guard, and brought in 3,000 outside soldiers to join the 1,000 already stationed in the area. [65] These additional soldiers were flown in on helicopters from bases in Virginia and North Carolina. The Pentagon readied 19,000 troops in the suburbs. [66] All of the forces involved were prepared to implement a coordinated conflict strategy named "Operation Steep Hill". [67]

For the first time since Prohibition, liquor sales were banned in Washington D.C. [68] Hospitals stockpiled blood plasma and cancelled elective surgeries. [69] Major League Baseball cancelled two games between the Minnesota Twins and the last place Washington Senators although the venue, D.C. Stadium, was nearly four miles from the Lincoln Memorial rally site. [66]

Rustin and Walter Fauntroy negotiated some security issues with the government, gaining approval for private marshals with the understanding that these would not be able to act against outside agitators. The FBI and Justice Department refused to provide preventive guards for buses traveling through the South to reach D.C. [70] William Johnson recruited more than 1,000 police officers to serve on this private force. [71] Julius Hobson, an FBI informant who served on the March's security force, told the team to be on the lookout for FBI infiltrators who might act as agents provocateurs. [72] Jerry Bruno, President Kennedy's advance man, was positioned to cut the power to the public address system in the event of any incendiary rally speech. [66]

Venue and sound system Edit

The organizers originally planned to hold the march outside the Capitol Building. [73] However, Reuther persuaded them to move the march to the Lincoln Memorial. [73] He believed the Lincoln Memorial would be less threatening to Congress and the occasion would be appropriate underneath the gaze of President Abraham Lincoln's statue. [73] The committee, notably Rustin, agreed to move the site on the condition that Reuther pay for a $19,000 sound system so that everyone on the National Mall could hear the speakers and musicians. [73]

Rustin pushed hard for the expensive sound system, maintaining that "We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear." The system was obtained and set up at the Lincoln Memorial, but was sabotaged on the day before the March. Its operators were unable to repair it. Fauntroy contacted Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his civil rights liaison Burke Marshall, demanding that the government fix the system. Fauntroy reportedly told them: "We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we've done?" The system was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. [74]

The march commanded national attention by preempting regularly scheduled television programs. As the first ceremony of such magnitude ever initiated and dominated by African Americans, the march also was the first to have its nature wholly misperceived in advance. Dominant expectations ran from paternal apprehension to dread. On Meet the Press, reporters grilled Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King Jr. about widespread foreboding that "it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting." Life magazine declared that the capital was suffering "its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run." The jails shifted inmates to other prisons to make room for those arrested in mass arrest. With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly larger than the Kennedy inauguration two years earlier. [47] Students from the University of California, Berkeley came together as black power organizations and emphasized the importance of the African-American freedom struggle. The march included black political parties and William Worthy was one of many who led college students during the freedom struggle era. [75]

On August 28, more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars converged on Washington. [76] All regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses were also filled to capacity. [47]

Although Randolph and Rustin had originally planned to fill the streets of Washington, D.C., the final route of the March covered only half of the National Mall. [49] The march began at the Washington Monument and was scheduled to progress to the Lincoln Memorial. Demonstrators were met at the monument by the speakers and musicians. Women leaders were asked to march down Independence Avenue, while the male leaders marched on Pennsylvania Avenue with the media. [77]

The start of the March was delayed because its leaders were meeting with members of Congress. To the leaders' surprise, the assembled group began to march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial without them. The leaders met the March at Constitution Avenue, where they linked arms at the head of a crowd in order to be photographed 'leading the march'. [78]

Marchers were not supposed to create their own signs, though this rule was not completely enforced by marshals. Most of the demonstrators did carry pre-made signs, available in piles at the Washington Monument. [79] The UAW provided thousands of signs that, among other things, read: "There Is No Halfway House on the Road to Freedom," [80] "Equal Rights and Jobs NOW," [81] "UAW Supports Freedom March," [82] "in Freedom we are Born, in Freedom we must Live," [83] and "Before we'll be a Slave, we'll be Buried in our Grave." [84]

About 50 members of the American Nazi Party staged a counter-protest and were quickly dispersed by police. [85] The rest of Washington was quiet during the March. Most non-participating workers stayed home. Jailers allowed inmates to watch the March on TV. [86]

Representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations addressed the crowd from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. Speakers (dubbed "The Big Ten") included The Big Six three religious leaders (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish) and labor leader Walter Reuther. None of the official speeches was by a woman. Dancer and actress Josephine Baker gave a speech during the preliminary offerings, but women were limited in the official program to a "tribute" led by Bayard Rustin, at which Daisy Bates also spoke briefly (see "excluded speakers" below.)

Floyd McKissick read James Farmer's speech because Farmer had been arrested during a protest in Louisiana Farmer wrote that the protests would not stop "until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North." [89]

The order of the speakers was as follows:

  • 1. A. Philip Randolph – March Director
  • 2. Walter Reuther – UAW, AFL-CIO
  • 3. Roy Wilkins – NAACP
  • 4. John Lewis – Chair, SNCC
  • 5. Daisy Bates – Little Rock, Arkansas
  • 6. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake – United Presbyterian Church and the National Council of Churches
  • 7. Floyd McKissick –CORE
  • 8. Whitney Young – National Urban League
  • 9. Several smaller speeches were made, including by Rabbi Joachim Prinz – American Jewish Congress, Mathew Ahmann – National Catholic Conference, and Josephine Baker – dancer and actress
  • 10. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – SCLC. His "I Have a Dream" speech has become celebrated for its vision and eloquence.

Closing remarks were made by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, March Organizers, leading with The Pledge and a list of demands. [90]

Official program Edit

Noted singer Marian Anderson was scheduled to lead the National Anthem but was unable to arrive on time Camilla Williams performed in her place. Following an invocation by Washington's Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, [91] the opening remarks were given by march director A. Philip Randolph, followed by Eugene Carson Blake.

A tribute to "Negro Women Fighters for Freedom" was led by Bayard Rustin, at which Daisy Bates spoke briefly in place of Myrlie Evers, who had missed her flight. [92] [93] [94] The tribute introduced Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Prince E. Lee, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson.

Following that, speakers were SNCC chairman John Lewis, labor leader Walter Reuther, and CORE chairman Floyd McKissick (substituting for arrested CORE director James Farmer). The Eva Jessye Choir sang, and Rabbi Uri Miller (president of the Synagogue Council of America) offered a prayer. He was followed by National Urban League director Whitney Young, NCCIJ director Mathew Ahmann, and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. After a performance by singer Mahalia Jackson, American Jewish Congress president Joachim Prinz spoke, followed by SCLC president Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin read the March's official demands for the crowd's approval, and Randolph led the crowd in a pledge to continue working for the March's goals. The program was closed with a benediction by Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays.

Although one of the officially stated purposes of the march was to support the civil rights bill introduced by the Kennedy Administration, several of the speakers criticized the proposed law as insufficient. Two government agents stood by in a position to cut power to the microphone if necessary. [95]

Roy Wilkins Edit

Roy Wilkins announced that sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois had died in Ghana the previous night, where he had been living in exile the crowd observed a moment of silence in his memory. [96] Wilkins had initially refused to announce the news because he despised Du Bois for becoming a Communist—but insisted on making the announcement when he realized that Randolph would make it if he didn't. [97] Wilkins said: "Regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois, published in 1903." [98]

John Lewis Edit

John Lewis of SNCC was the youngest speaker at the event. [99] He planned to criticize the Kennedy Administration for the inadequacies of the Civil Rights Act of 1963. Other leaders insisted that the speech be changed to be less antagonistic to the government. James Forman and other SNCC activists contributed to the revision. It still complained that the Administration had not done enough to protect southern blacks and civil rights workers from physical violence by whites in the Deep South. [46] [100] Deleted from his original speech at the insistence of more conservative and pro-Kennedy leaders [5] [101] were phrases such as:

In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. .

I want to know, which side is the federal government on? .

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a "cooling-off" period.

. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently .

Lewis' speech was distributed to fellow organizers the evening before the march Reuther, O'Boyle, and others thought it was too divisive and militant. [102] O'Boyle objected most strenuously to a part of the speech that called for immediate action and disavowed "patience." The government and moderate organizers could not countenance Lewis's explicit opposition to Kennedy's civil rights bill. That night, O'Boyle and other members of the Catholic delegation began preparing a statement announcing their withdrawal from the March. Reuther convinced them to wait and called Rustin Rustin informed Lewis at 2 A.M. on the day of the march that his speech was unacceptable to key coalition members. (Rustin also reportedly contacted Tom Kahn, mistakenly believing that Kahn had edited the speech and inserted the line about Sherman's March to the Sea. Rustin asked, "How could you do this? Do you know what Sherman did?) But Lewis did not want to change the speech. Other members of SNCC, including Stokely Carmichael, were also adamant that the speech not be censored. [103] The dispute continued until minutes before the speeches were scheduled to begin. Under threat of public denouncement by the religious leaders, and under pressure from the rest of his coalition, Lewis agreed to omit the 'inflammatory' passages. [104] Many activists from SNCC, CORE, and SCLC were angry at what they considered censorship of Lewis's speech. [105] In the end, Lewis added a qualified endorsement of Kennedy's civil rights legislation, saying: "It is true that we support the administration's Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however." [34] Even after toning down his speech, Lewis called for activists to "get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes". [106]

Martin Luther King Jr. Edit

The speech given by SCLC president King, who spoke last, became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, which was carried live by TV stations and subsequently considered the most impressive moment of the march. [107] In it, King called for an end to racism in the United States. It invoked the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the United States Constitution. At the end of the speech, Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!", and King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme of "I have a dream". [108] [109] Over time it has been hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, added to the National Recording Registry and memorialized by the National Park Service with an inscription on the spot where King stood to deliver the speech.

Randolph and Rustin Edit

A. Philip Randolph spoke first, promising: "we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours." [110] Randolph also closed the event along with Bayard Rustin. Rustin followed King's speech by slowly reading the list of demands. [111] The two concluded by urging attendees to take various actions in support of the struggle. [112]

Walter Reuther Edit

Walter Reuther urged Americans to pressure their politicians to act to address racial injustices. He said,

American democracy is on trial in the eyes of the world . We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. American democracy will lack the moral credentials and be both unequal to and unworthy of leading the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny unless we take bold, affirmative, adequate steps to bridge the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights. [113]

According to Irving Bluestone, who was standing near the platform while Reuther delivered his remarks, he overheard two black women talking. One asked, "Who is that white man?" The other replied, "Don't you know him? That's the white Martin Luther King." [114]

Excluded speakers Edit

Author James Baldwin was prevented from speaking at the March on the grounds that his comments would be too inflammatory. [115] Baldwin later commented on the irony of the "terrifying and profound" requests that he prevent the March from happening: [116]

In my view, by that time, there was, on the one hand, nothing to prevent—the March had already been co-opted—and, on the other, no way of stopping the people from descending on Washington. What struck me most horribly was that virtually no one in power (including some blacks or Negroes who were somewhere next door to power) was able, even remotely, to accept the depth, the dimension, of the passion and the faith of the people.

Despite the protests of organizer Anna Arnold Hedgeman, no women gave a speech at the March. Male organizers attributed this omission to the "difficulty of finding a single woman to speak without causing serious problems vis-à-vis other women and women's groups". [117] Hedgeman read a statement at an August 16 meeting, charging:

In light of the role of Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of our Negro men in this culture, it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial. . .

The assembled group agreed that Myrlie Evers, the new widow of Medgar Evers, could speak during the "Tribute to Women". However, Evers was unavailable, [118] [119] having missed her flight, and Daisy Bates spoke briefly (less than 200 words) in place of her. [92] [93] [94] [108] Earlier, Josephine Baker had addressed the crowd before the official program began. [94] [108] Although Gloria Richardson was on the program and had been asked to give a two-minute speech, when she arrived at the stage her chair with her name on it had been removed, and the event marshal took her microphone away after she said "hello". [77] Richardson, along with Rosa Parks and Lena Horne, was escorted away from the podium before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. [77]

Early plans for the March would have included an "Unemployed Worker" as one of the speakers. This position was eliminated, furthering criticism of the March's middle-class bias. [120]

Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sang "How I Got Over", and Marian Anderson sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". This was not Marian Anderson's first appearance at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Joan Baez led the crowds in several verses of "We Shall Overcome" and "Oh Freedom". Musician Bob Dylan performed "When the Ship Comes In", for which he was joined by Baez. Dylan also performed "Only a Pawn in Their Game", a provocative and not completely popular choice because it asserted that Byron De La Beckwith, as a poor white man, was not personally or primarily to blame for the murder of Medgar Evers. [121]

Some participants, including Dick Gregory criticized the choice of mostly white performers and the lack of group participation in the singing. [122] Dylan himself said he felt uncomfortable as a white man serving as a public image for the Civil Rights Movement. After the March on Washington, he performed at few other immediately politicized events. [123]

The event featured many prominent celebrities in addition to singers on the program. Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eartha Kitt, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne were among the black celebrities attending. There were also quite a few white and Latino celebrities who attended the march in support of the cause: Judy Garland, James Garner, Robert Ryan, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rita Moreno, Marlon Brando, Bobby Darin and Burt Lancaster, among others. [124] [125]

After the March, the speakers travelled to the White House for a brief discussion of proposed civil rights legislation with President Kennedy. [126] As the leaders approached The White House, the media reported that Reuther said to King, "Everything was perfect, just perfect." [127] Kennedy had watched King's speech on TV and was very impressed. According to biographer Thomas C. Reeves, Kennedy "felt that he would be booed at the March, and also didn't want to meet with organizers before the March because he didn't want a list of demands. He arranged a 5 P.M. meeting at the White House with the 10 leaders on the 28th." [128]

During the meeting, Reuther described to Kennedy how he was framing the civil rights issue to business leaders in Detroit, saying, "Look, you can't escape the problem. And there are two ways of resolving it either by reason or riots." [129] Reuther continued, "Now the civil war that this is gonna trigger is not gonna be fought at Gettysburg. It's gonna to be fought in your backyard, in your plant, where your kids are growing up." [129] The March was considered a "triumph of managed protest" and Kennedy felt it was a victory for him as well—bolstering the chances for his civil rights bill. [130]

Media attention gave the march national exposure, carrying the organizers' speeches and offering their own commentary. In his section The March on Washington and Television News, William Thomas notes: "Over five hundred cameramen, technicians, and correspondents from the major networks were set to cover the event. More cameras would be set up than had filmed the last Presidential inauguration. One camera was positioned high in the Washington Monument, to give dramatic vistas of the marchers". [131] The major networks broadcast some of the March live, though they interspersed footage of interviews with politicians. Subsequent broadcasts focused heavily on the "I have a dream" portion of King's speech. [132]

The Voice of America translated the speeches and rebroadcast them in 36 languages. The United States Information Agency organized a press conference for the benefit of foreign journalists, and also created a documentary film of the event for distribution to embassies abroad. [49] Commented Michael Thelwell of SNCC: "So it happened that Negro students from the South, some of whom still had unhealed bruises from the electric cattle prods which Southern police used to break up demonstrations, were recorded for the screens of the world portraying 'American Democracy at Work.'" [133]

Organizers Edit

Although the mass media generally declared the March successful because of its high turnout, organizers were not confident that it would create change. Randolph and Rustin abandoned their belief in the effectiveness of marching on Washington. King maintained faith that action in Washington could work, but determined that future marchers would need to call greater attention to economic injustice. In 1967–1968, he organized a Poor People's Campaign to occupy the National Mall with a shantytown. [134]

Critics Edit

Black nationalist Malcolm X, in his Message to the Grass Roots speech, criticized the march, describing it as "a picnic" and "a circus". He said the civil rights leaders had diluted the original purpose of the march, which had been to show the strength and anger of black people, by allowing white people and organizations to help plan and participate in the march. [135] One SNCC staffer commented during the march, "He's denouncing us as clowns, but he's right there with the clown show." [136] But the membership of SNCC, increasingly frustrated with the tactics of the NAACP and other moderate groups, gradually embraced Malcolm X's position. [134]

Segregationists including William Jennings Bryan Dorn criticized the government for cooperating with the civil rights activists. [137] Senator Olin D. Johnston rejected an invitation to attend, writing: "You are committing the worst possible mistake in promoting this March. You should know that criminal, fanatical, and communistic elements, as well as crackpots, will move in to take every advantage of this mob. You certainly will have no influence on any member of Congress, including myself." [138]

Participants Edit

Many participants said they felt the March was a historic and life-changing experience. Nan Grogan Orrock, a student at Mary Washington College, said: "You couldn't help but get swept up in the feeling of the March. It was an incredible experience of this mass of humanity with one mind moving down the street. It was like being part of a glacier. You could feel the sense of collective will and effort in the air." [139] SNCC organizer Bob Zellner reported that the event "provided dramatic proof that the sometimes quiet and always dangerous work we did in the Deep South had had a profound national impact. The spectacle of a quarter of a million supporters and activists gave me an assurance that the work I was in the process of dedicating my life to was worth doing." [140]

Richard Brown, then a white graduate student at Harvard University, recalls that the March fostered direct actions for economic progress: "Henry Armstrong and I compared notes. I realized the Congress of Racial Equality might help black employment in Boston by urging businesses to hire contractors like Armstrong. He agreed to help start a list of reliable contractors that CORE could promote. It was a modest effort — but it moved in the right direction." [141]

Other participants, more sympathetic to Malcolm X and the black nationalists, expressed ambivalence. One marcher from New York explained: [142]

It's like St Patrick's Day. I came out of respect for what my people are doing, not because I believe it will do any good. I thought it would do some good in the beginning. But when the march started to get all the official approval from Mastah Kennedy, Mastah Wagner, Mastah Spellman, and they started setting limits on how we had to march peacefully, I knew that the march was going to be a mockery, that they were giving us something again.

Marcher Beverly Alston thought that the day had its greatest impact within the movement: "Culturally, there has been tremendous progress over the past forty years. Black awareness and self-determination has soared. Politically, I just don't think we've made enough progress." [143] Fifteen-year-old Ericka Jenkins from Washington said: [144]

I saw people laughing and listening and standing very close to one another, almost in an embrace. Children of every size, pregnant women, elderly people who seemed tired but happy to be there, clothing that made me know that they struggled to make it day to day, made me know they worked in farms or offices or even nearby for the government. I didn't see teenagers alone I saw groups of teenagers with teachers.
White people [were] standing in wonder. Their eyes were open, they were listening. Openness and nothing on guard—I saw that in everybody. I was so happy to see that in the white people that they could listen and take in and respect and believe in the words of a black person. I had never seen anything like that.

Some people discussed racism becoming less explicit after the March. Reverend Abraham Woods of Birmingham commented: "Everything has changed. And when you look at it, nothing has changed. Racism is under the surface, and an incident that could scratch it, can bring it out." [145]

The symbolism of the March has been contested since before it even took place. In the years following the March, movement radicals increasingly subscribed to Malcolm X's narrative of the March as a co-optation by the white establishment. However, some black nationalist intellectuals did not see that the liberal reforms of the Johnson administration would assure "full integration" based upon the existing power structures and persisting racist culture of daily life in America. Former Communist Party member Harold Cruse posited that full integration was "not possible within the present framework of the American system". Black Panther Party member and lawyer Kathleen Cleaver held radical views that only revolution could transform American society to bring about the redistribution of wealth and power that was needed to end the historical facts of exclusion and inequality. [146]

Liberals and conservatives tended to embrace the March, but focused mostly on King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the legislative successes of 1964 and 1965. [34] The mass media identified King's speech as a highlight of the event and focused on this oration to the exclusion of other aspects. For several decades, King took center stage in narratives about the March. More recently, historians and commentators have acknowledged the role played by Bayard Rustin in organizing the event. [147]

The March was an early example of social movements conducting mass rallies in Washington, D.C., and was followed by several other marches in the capital, many of which used similar names. [ citation needed ]

For the 50th Anniversary, of the March, the United States Postal Service released a forever stamp that commemorated it. [148]

Political effects Edit

Soon after the speakers ended their meetings with Congress to go join the March, both houses passed legislation to create a dispute arbitration board for striking railroad workers. [149]

The March is credited with propelling the U.S. government into action on civil rights, creating political momentum for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. [26]

The cooperation of a Democratic administration with the issue of civil rights marked a pivotal moment in voter alignment within the U.S. The Democratic Party gave up the Solid South—its undivided support since Reconstruction among the segregated Southern states—and went on to capture a high proportion of votes from blacks from the Republicans. [26] [150]

Anniversary marches Edit

The 1963 March also spurred anniversary marches that occur every five years, with the 20th and 25th being some of the most well known. The 20th Anniversary theme was "We Still have a Dream . Jobs*Peace*Freedom." [151]

At the 50th anniversary march in 2013, President Barack Obama conferred a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on Bayard Rustin and 15 others. [34] [147]

2020 Virtual March on Washington Edit

On July 20, 2020, the NAACP, one of the original organizers of the 1963 march, announced that it would commemorate it by organizing another rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in which King's oldest son, Martin Luther King III, would join civil rights leaders and the families of black men and women who died as a result of police brutality. [152] An online tie-in event was also planned, called the 2020 Virtual March on Washington. It was held August 27 and 28, the latter being the anniversary of the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, and the day after President Trump was scheduled to accept his party's nomination for President at the Republican National Convention. [153] Addressing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers explained that the virtual component of the rally was organized to enable participation by people unable to travel to Washington D.C. or safely participate in the in-person event. [152] The NAACP's Virtual March featured performances from Macy Gray, Burna Boy, and speeches from Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker, and Mahershala Ali, among many others. It was a two-night event broadcast on ABC News Live, Bounce TV, TV One and on online platforms. [154] [155] [156] [157]

In 2013, the Economic Policy Institute launched a series of reports around the theme of "The Unfinished March". These reports analyze the goals of the original march and assess how much progress has been made. [158] [159] They echo the message of Randolph and Rustin that civil rights cannot transform people's quality of life unless accompanied by economic justice. They contend that many of the March's primary goals—including housing, integrated education, and widespread employment at living wages—have not been accomplished. They further argued that although legal advances were made, black people still live in concentrated areas of poverty ("ghettoes"), where they receive inferior education and suffer from widespread unemployment. [160]

Dedrick Muhammad of the NAACP writes that racial inequality of income and homeownership have increased since 1963 and worsened during the recent Great Recession. [161]

The March on Washington

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech 52 years ago at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As William P. Jones reveals in his “magnificent work of historical reconstruction” (Michael Honey), The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, there was far more to the day than we usually remember. What follows is adapted from the preface to the book.

Nearly every American and millions of people around the world are familiar with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, yet most know little about the March on Washington at which it was delivered. The tremendous eloquence and elegant simplicity of the speech meant that many, then and now, came to associate the broader goals of the demonstration with King’s compelling vision of interracial-harmony—a dream of a nation that would finally live up to its founders’ proclamations about the “self-evident” equality of all people, in which children would be judged “by the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin and in which citizens would “be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Few know that King’s was the last of ten speeches, capping more than six hours of performances by well-known musicians (including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan), appearances by politicians and movie stars, and statements of solidarity from groups across the nation and around the world—as well as an actual march.

Even fewer know that it was a march “For Jobs and Freedom,” and that it aimed not just to end racial segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South but also to ensure that Americans of all races had access to quality education, affordable housing, and jobs that paid a living wage. We forget that King’s task was to uplift the spirits of marchers after a long day in the sun and, for most, a night traveling by bus or train from as far away as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and even Los Angeles. One reporter observed that while King “ignited the crowd” with his optimistic vision of the future, the other speakers “concentrated on the struggle ahead and spoke in tough, even harsh language.” Yet those other speeches have been virtually lost to history.

On August 28, 1963, nearly a quarter-million people descended on the nation’s capital to demand “Jobs and Freedom.” By “freedom” they meant that every American be guaranteed access to stores, restaurants, hotels, and other “public accommodations,” to “decent housing” and “adequate and integrated education,” and to the right to vote. They also wanted strict enforcement of those civil rights, including the withholding of federal funds from discriminatory programs and housing developments, the reduction of congressional representation in states where citizens were denied the right to vote, and authorization of the attorney general to bring injunctive suits when “any constitutional right is violated.”

“We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution…”

Some of those demands were addressed by a civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy had introduced to Congress on June 11, 1963, two months before the demonstration. Marchers wanted to pass that bill, but they believe it was far too limited. In addition to equal access to public accommodations and the right to vote, they demanded a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” They wanted to raise the minimum wage to a level that would “give all Americans a decent standard of living,” and to extend that standard to agricultural workers, domestic servants, and public employees, who were excluded from the federal law that created the minimum wage. For many marchers, the most important objective was the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to prevent private firms, government agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.

King delivered the finale at the Lincoln Memorial, but the tone for the day was set in an opening address by A. Philip Randolph, the seventy-four-year-old trade unionist who was the official leader of the March on Washington. Randolph agreed with King on the need for integration and racial equality in the South, but he linked those objectives to a broader national and interracial struggle for economic and social justice. “We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom,” he told the crowd that stretched out for more than a mile before him. He declared that the civil rights movement affected “every city, every town, every village where black men are segregated, oppressed and exploited,” but insisted it was “not confined to the Negroes nor is it confined to civil rights.” It was critical to end segregation in southern stores and restaurants, the union leader insisted, “but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”

What good was an FEPC, he asked, if the rapidly expanding automation of industry was allowed to “destroy the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?” Whereas King appealed to the nation’s founding principles of equality and freedom, Randolph insisted that “real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.” Ending housing discrimination, for example, would require Americans to reject the assumption that a homeowner’s “property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.” In the civil rights revolution, he declared, “The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality.”

In addition to complicating popular memories of the March on Washington, the tenor of Randolph’s and others’ speeches also challenges a common misconception about the broader history of the civil rights movement. Until recently, the most influential accounts presented the 1963 protest as the apex of an exceptional moment when civil rights leaders transcended their ideological and strategic differences by focusing narrowly on “moral imperatives that had garnered support from the nation’s moderates—issues such as the right to vote and the right to a decent education.” The “classical” phase of the civil rights movement began with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954, which struck down the legalized system of segregation in the Jim Crow South, and it ended in the late 1960s, we were told, when the Black Power and New Left movements shifted the focus toward the urban North and to “issues whose moral rightness was not as readily apparent,” such as poverty and discrimination in housing and employment. That interpretation was embraced by critics representing a broad spectrum of American political thought. Conservatives praised King and other civil rights leaders for suppressing calls for “radical social, political, and economic changes” while leftists chided those same leaders for failing to “even grapple with [the] social and economic contradictions” of American capitalism.

Historians have complicated the traditional narrative by tracing the “radical roots of civil rights” back into the 1930s and ’40s and by demonstrating that civil rights activists of many ideological varieties always insisted that access to jobs, housing, and economic security was as vital to their struggle as voting rights and integration. They also reminded us that the movement faced stiff resistance to those demands in the most moderate regions of the urban North, as well as in the conservative South. With few exceptions, however, scholars simply inverted the older story by allowing the March on Washington to remain a moderate exception to a radical “long civil rights movement.” The most influential recent studies still either end the story before 1963 or shift our attention from “leaders on the platform high above the crowd” to local movements and grassroots activists that, scholars contend, more accurately “capture the motivations that led relatively obscure individuals to the March.” By relegating well-known leaders and events to the background, historians have reinforced the old thesis that political constraints of the era “kept discussions of broad-based social change, or a linking of race and class, off the agenda” during the classical phase.

Both the power and the limitations of the traditional narrative are evident in the political career of Barack Obama, who became the nation’s first black president during the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. During his campaign for president in 2008, Obama credited the civil rights movement—often gesturing directly to Congressman John Lewis, who spoke at the March—with “leading a people out of bondage” and laying the foundation for his own success. When discussing social and economic policy, however, he suggested that the racially egalitarian politics of Lewis’ “Moses generation” had lost their effectiveness in an era when poorly funded public services, stagnant wages, and skyrocketing unemployment rates threatened the livelihoods of all Americans, regardless of their race. “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” he stated in his campaign’s most direct attempt to address the question of racial inequality, suggesting that African Americans could transcend the “racial stalemate” that dominated American politics by “binding our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” Referring to his own white grandparents, who came of age during the Depression and the Second World War, the candidate suggested that the social-democratic and race-neutral policies of the New Deal era offered a more effective model for social and economic policy in the twenty-first century.

Obama’s appeal to the “greatest generation” certainly aided his election in 2008, but when he ran for reelection four years later the lessons to be drawn from their experiences seemed less clear. The president had implemented an ambitious economic recovery program and the most dramatic reform of the nation’s health care system since the 1960s, both of which benefited white Americans as much as or more so than nonwhites. Yet the racial polarization of American politics had only increased. Although unemployment rates had fallen at a slightly faster rate for black and Latino workers than for whites, they remained far higher than the national average. Still reluctant to address racial inequality directly, Obama spoke out powerfully against clear cases of discrimination and racist violence but had no narrative to explain the more complex interactions between racial and economic inequality. Meanwhile, polls indicated that white voters were even less likely to support the black candidate than they had been four years earlier. Rather than transcending racial differences through a color-blind appeal to economic interests, Obama won reelection by uniting a broad coalition of nonwhite workers, women of all races, liberal youth, and a few white men around demands for equality and economic justice.

“A gentle army of quiet, middle-class Americans who came in the spirit of the church outing…”

While Randolph, King, and other national figures were the official spokesmen for the March on Washington, the primary task of organizing the protest fell to staff and elected officials of local civil rights organizations, unions, churches, and other groups who lived in the same working-class communities that formed the primary base of support for the movement. Perhaps the most important evidence of agreement between leaders and marchers was simply the fact that so many people travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles—most missing a day or more of work and all but a few paying their own way—to be in Washington that day. Some were students or full-time activists, but the vast majority consisted of auto workers and meatpackers, teachers and letter carriers, domestic servants and sharecroppers who—aside from their membership in unions and civil rights organizations—had little history of political protest. Journalist Russell Baker described them as “a gentle army of quiet, middle-class Americans who came in the spirit of the church outing,” suggesting that they were in Washington for pleasure or out of a sense of religious or patriotic duty. Malcolm X, a black nationalist who accused Randolph, King, and other leaders of tempering the radicalism of the protest, argued that the marchers had been “fooled.” Given the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, however, it seems more likely that they believed deeply in the message that Randolph, King, and others proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day.

Even on the basis of King’s dream of racial equality and integration, that message was hardly moderate. By 1963, the civil rights movement had already changed Americans’ views about racial equality. Polls showed that 83 percent of whites believed that “Negroes should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job,” for example, nearly double the percentage that held that same view when A. Philip Randolph first called for a March on Washington in 1941. Even in the rigidly segregated South, a majority of whites had no objection to riding a bus with a black person or to a black family “with the same income and education” buying a house on their block. Civil rights leaders faced resistance, however, when they asked the government to enforce those ideals. Nearly a decade after the Brown decision, only one percent of black students in the South attended school with any white students. Yet 75 percent of white southerners and 50 percent of white northerners accused President Kennedy of “pushing integration too fast.” Three-quarters of white northerners believed that a property owner had the right to sell or rent a home to a family regardless of their race, but less than half of them thought the government should force them to do so.

The economic policies that marchers demanded were no less controversial. They wanted to raise the minimum wage to $2 an hour, even though Kennedy had struggled to increase it to $1.25 just two years earlier. By 1963, Kennedy had abandoned the “old slogans,” like wage increases and public works programs of the New Deal era, in favor of “new tools” for creating economic growth, such as tax cuts and free trade. A. Philip Randolph’s FEPC had been defeated in nearly every session of Congress since the Second World War. After watching Bayard Rustin close the March on Washington by reading the full list of demands while “every television camera at the disposal of the networks was upon him,” left-wing journalist Murray Kempton remarked: “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.”

Of course the true test of any political movement lies not so much in its goals or objectives as in its ability to achieve them, and in this regard as well, historians have been too eager to dismiss the March on Washington. While some adopted Russell Baker’s assertion that marchers were simply affirming the basic principles of “middle-class” America, others agreed with Malcolm X that they were naïve to believe that they could challenge 400 years of white supremacy with a “one day ‘integrated’ picnic.” More recent scholars have acknowledged the radical roots of Randolph, King, and other leaders but—echoing broader trends in the literature—conclude that media coverage “simultaneously blunted the march’s broad political demands” and reduced its message to King’s optimistic Dream, while continued resistance from Congress “meant that the march yielded no immediate legislative gains.” It is true that newspapers and television broadcasts were filled with praise for King’s speech, but they also highlighted the other leaders and the full list of the march’s demands. It took nearly a year to pass Kennedy’s bill, and many supported it to honor the president after his assassination in November of 1963 rather than to respond to the civil rights movement.

But the Civil Rights Act that President Lyndon Johnson signed on July 2, 1964, had the marks of the March on Washington all over it. Most importantly, it included the FEPC clause that Randolph had fought for since the 1940s. Unexpectedly, the law also banned employment discrimination based on sex, in addition to race, color, religion, and national origin, thus realizing—through a complicated and often contradictory set of events—Anna Hedgeman’s and other black women’s efforts to expand the scope of the March on Washington Movement. In addition to supporting the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson pledged to couple it with an “unconditional war on poverty,” an idea he adopted from the Kennedy administration but bolstered with measures—such as the minimum wage increase and federal investments in education, housing, and job training—that were demanded by the March on Washington. Those items were scaled back dramatically as the War on Poverty made its way through Congress, and civil rights leaders would soon realize how weak the Civil Rights Act was, but they had won a victory for African Americans and the cause of racial equality that was certainly appropriate for the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Speaking to a conference of black leaders sixteen months after the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph observed that the “Civil Rights Revolution has been caught up in a crisis of victory.” Comparing that crisis to the disillusionment that set in among former slaves and abolitionists in the 1870s and 1880s, when the achievements of emancipation were undermined by the rise of Jim Crow, and to the decline of labor militancy following the upheavals of the 1930s, he warned that many activists were frustrated with the limited nature of the victories they had already achieved, that they had stopped moving forward and were in danger of losing ground. He was responding to divisions that had challenged the movement during preparations for the march and widened during the campaign to pass the Civil Rights Act. They included debates over the utility of mass protest versus legislative lobbying, the relationship between race and sex discrimination, and the possibility of interracial cooperation. In many respects our historical memory of the March on Washington is still caught up in that crisis of victory, in part because those conflicts have not been resolved but also because we still allow them to overshadow the significance of what was actually accomplished by bringing a quarter-million people to the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963.

Americans who marched on Washington 50 years ago under a blazing sun recall the day they were part of a turning point in history

Ken Howard, a D.C. student working a summer job at the post office before entering Howard University in the fall, took a bus downtown to join a massive gathering on the National Mall. “The crowd was just enormous,” he recalls. “Kind of like the feeling you get when a thunderstorm is coming and you know it is going to really happen. There was an expectation and excitement that this march finally would make a difference.”

Only a few months before, in that electric atmosphere of anticipation, 32-year-old singer-songwriter Sam Cooke composed “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the song that would become the anthem of the civil rights movement.

The potent symbolism of a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial—timed to coincide with the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation and following President John F. Kennedy’s announcement in June that he would submit a civil rights bill to Congress—transfixed the nation. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom also catapulted 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who set aside prepared notes to declare “I Have a Dream,” into the realm of transcendent American orators.

Behind the scenes, the lead organizer, Bayard Rustin, presided over a logistical campaign unprecedented in American activism. Volunteers prepared 80,000 50-cent boxed lunches (consisting of a cheese sandwich, a slice of poundcake and an apple). Rustin marshaled more than 2,200 chartered buses, 40 special trains, 22 first-aid stations, eight 2,500-gallon water-storage tank trucks and 21 portable water fountains.

Participants traveled from across the country—young and old, black and white, celebrities and ordinary citizens. Everyone who converged on the capital that day, whether or not they recognized their accomplishment at the time, stood at a crossroads from which there would be no turning back. Fifty years later, some of those participants—including John Lewis, Julian Bond, Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Andrew Young—relived the march in interviews recorded during the past several months in Washington, D.C., New York and Atlanta. Taken together, their voices, from a coalition including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, assume the force of collective memory.

A 42-year-old photographer, Stanley Tretick, who covered the Kennedy White House for Look magazine, was on the Mall as well. He documented the transformative moment in images unpublished until now, restored to history in Kitty Kelley’s Let Freedom Ring, a posthumous collection of Tretick’s work from that day.  View more of Tretick's stunning photographs here.

The demonstrators who sweltered in the 83-degree heat as they petitioned their government for change—the crowd of at least 250,000 constituted the largest gathering of its kind in Washington—remind us of who we were then as a nation, and where we would move in the struggle to overcome our history. “It’s difficult for someone these days,” says Howard, “to understand what it was like, to suddenly have a ray of light in the dark. That’s really what it was like.”

You have to back up and think about what was happening at the time. Nationally, in 1962, you have James Meredith, the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, that was national news. In May 1963, Bull Connor with the dogs and the fire hoses, turning them on people, front-page news. And then in June, that summer, you have Medgar Evers shot down in the South, and his body actually on view on 14th Street at a church in D.C. So you had a group of individuals who had been not just oppressed, but discriminated against and killed because of their color. The March on Washington symbolized a rising up, if you will, of people who were saying enough is enough.

Rachelle Horowitz, Aide to Bayard Rustin (later a labor union official):

A. Philip Randolph [president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters] had tried to put on a march in 1941 to protest discrimination in the armed forces and for a fair employment policy commission. He called off that march when FDR issued an executive order [prohibiting discrimination in the national defense industry]. But Randolph always believed that you had to move the civil rights struggle to Washington, to the center of power. In January 1963, Bayard Rustin sent a memo to A. Philip Randolph in essence saying the time is now to really conceive of a big march. Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as 󈨃 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.

Eleanor Holmes Norton (SNCC Activist, later a 12-term D.C. delegate to Congress):

I was in law school, I was in Mississippi in the delta working on the predecessor for the workshops that were to take place a year later in the Freedom Summer. I got a call from one of my friends in New York who said, “You need to be here, Eleanor, because we are developing the March on Washington.” So I spent part of the summer in New York, working on this truly fledgling March on Washington. Bayard Rustin organized it out of a brownstone in Harlem that was our office. When I look back now, I am all the more impressed with the genius of Bayard Rustin. I do not believe that there was another person involved with the movement who could have organized that march—the quintessential organizer and strategist. Bayard Rustin was maybe the only openly gay man I knew. That was simply “not respectable,” so he was attacked by Strom Thurmond and the Southern Democrats, who sought to get at the march by attacking Rustin. To the credit of the civil rights leadership, they closed in around Rustin.

“We’re going to walk together. We’re going to stand together. We’re going to sing together. We’re going to stay together.” —The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth ( Radio transcript excerpts (in block quotes) courtesy of WGBH Media Library and Archives)

John Lewis, Chairman of SNCC (later a 13-term congressman from Georgia)

A. Philip Randolph had this idea in the back of his mind for many years. When he had his chance to make another demand for a March on Washington, he told President Kennedy in a meeting at the White House in June 1963 that we were going to march on Washington. It was the so-called “Big Six,” Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr. and myself. Out of the blue Mr. Randolph spoke up. He was the dean of black leadership, the spokesperson. He said “Mr. President, the black masses are restless and we are going to march on Washington.” President Kennedy didn’t like the idea, hearing people talk about a march on Washington. He said, “If you bring all these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder and we will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress?” Mr. Randolph responded, “Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest.”

“The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. When we leave, it will be to carry on the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers, until total freedom is ours.” —A. Philip Randolph

Harry Belafonte, Activist and entertainer

We had to seize this opportunity and make our voices heard. Make those who are comfortable with our oppression—make them uncomfortable—Dr. King said that was the purpose of this mission.

Andrew Young, Aide to King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (later a diplomat and human rights activist)

Dr. Randolph’s march basically was an attempt to transform a black Southern civil rights movement into a national movement for human rights, for jobs and freedom. And anti-segregation. So it had a much broader base— the plan was to include not only SCLC but all of the civil rights organizations, the trade union movement, the universities, the churches—we had a big contingent from Hollywood.

​Julian Bond, communications director, SNCC (later a University of Virginia historian)

I thought it was a great idea, but within the organization, SNCC, it was thought to be a distraction from our main work, organizing people in the rural South. But John [Lewis] had committed us to it, and we would go with our leadership and we did.

Joyce Ladner, SNCC activist (later a sociologist)

At that point, the police all over Mississippi had cracked down so hard on us that it was more and more difficult to raise bond money, to organize without harassment from the local cops and the racists. I thought a large march would demonstrate that we had support outside our small group.

Rachelle Horowitz

As we started planning the march, we started getting letters from our dear friends in the Senate of the United States, people who were advocates of civil rights. Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, Phil Hart of Michigan, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. The letters began either “Dear Mr. Randolph” or “Dear Bayard: We think that it’s very important to pass the civil rights bill and we believe very strongly in what you are doing, but have you considered the difficulty of bringing in 100,000 people in Washington? Where will they use the bathrooms? Where will they get water?” Every letter was identical. Bayard began to refer to them as “latrine letters,” and we put latrine letters on the side. They were inspirational in one way, in that Bayard arranged to rent scores of portable johns. We found out later that Senator Paul Douglas’ son, John Douglas, was working in the Justice Department. He and a guy named John Reilly were writing these letters and giving them to the senators to send to us. Before robo-type, there were these letters.

Harry Belafonte

To mobilize the cultural force behind the cause—Dr. King saw that as hugely strategic. We use celebrity to the advantage of everything. Why not to the advantage of those who need to be liberated? My job was to convince the icons in the arts that they needed to have a presence in Washington on that day. Those that wanted to sit on the platform could do that, but we should be in among the citizens—the ordinary citizens—of the day. Somebody should just turn around and there was Paul Newman. Or turn around and there was Burt Lancaster. I went first to one of my closest friends, Marlon Brando, and asked if he would be willing to chair the leading delegation from California. And he said yes. Not only enthusiastically but committed himself to really working and calling friends.

“I’m speaking at the moment with Mr. Percy Lee Atkins of Clarksdale, Mississippi: ‘I came because we want our freedom. What’s it going to take to have our freedom?’” —Radio reporter Al Hulsen

Juanita Abernathy, Widow of Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (later a corporate executive)

We were there [in Washington] two days prior. We flew up [from Atlanta]. They expected us to be violent and for Washington to be torn up. But everybody had been told to remain nonviolent, just as we had been throughout the movement.

I started working on my speech several days before the March on Washington. We tried to come up with a speech that would represent the young people: the foot soldiers, people on the front lines. Some people call us the “shock troops” into the delta of Mississippi, into Alabama, southwest Georgia, eastern Arkansas, the people who had been arrested, jailed and beaten. Not only our own staffers but also the people that we were working with. They needed someone to speak for them.

The night before the march, Bayard Rustin put a note under my door and said, “John, you should come downstairs. There’s some discussion about your speech, some people have a problem with your speech.”

The archbishop [of Washington, D.C.] had threatened not to give the invocation if I kept some words and phrases in the speech.

In the original speech I said something like “In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s proposed civil rights bill. It was too little, too late. It did not protect old women and young children in nonviolent protests run down by policemen on horseback and police dogs.”

Much farther down I said something like “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day will come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way General Sherman did, nonviolently.” They said, “Oh no, you can’t say that it’s too inflammatory.” I think that was the concern of the people in the Kennedy administration. We didn’t delete that portion of the speech. We did not until we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial.

Joyce Ladner

The day before the March, my sister and Bobby Dylan, who was her good friend, went to a fund-raiser that night. She met Sidney Poitier he was very, very involved with SNCC, as was Harry Belafonte. The next morning, we picketed the Justice Department because three of our SNCC workers were in jail in Americus, Georgia, for sedition, “overthrowing the government.” If you can imagine, people who were 18, 19, 20 years old, close friends, who were arrested for overthrowing the government, the state? They had not been able to get bond. We were terrified that they would in fact be charged and sent up for a long time. So we picketed in an effort to draw attention to their plight.

Rachelle Horowitz

It was about 5:30 in the morning, it’s gray, it’s muggy, people are setting up. There’s nobody there for the march except some reporters and they start annoying Bayard and pestering him: “Where are the people, where are the people?” Bayard very elegantly took a piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it. Took out a pocket watch that he used, looked at both and said, “It’s all coming according to schedule,” and he put it away. The reporters went away and I asked, “What were you looking at?” He said, “A blank piece of paper.” Sure enough, eventually, about 8:30 or 9, the trains were pulling in and people were coming up singing and the buses came. There’s always that moment of “We know the buses are chartered, but will they really come?”

“At 7 o’clock, the first ten people were here. They brought their own folding chairs and are to my left down near the Reflecting Pool. The Reflecting Pool early this morning is very calm and so gives a nice reflection of the Washington Monument. There are apparently fish or some sort of fly in the Reflecting Pool because every few minutes you see little wavelets in the middle.” —Radio reporter David Eckelston

Courtland Cox, SNCC activist (later civil servant and businessman)

Bayard and I left together. It was real early, maybe 6 or 7 in the morning. We went out to the Mall and there was literally no one there. Nobody there. Bayard looks at me and says, “You think anybody is coming to this?” and just as he says that, a group of young people from an NAACP chapter came over the horizon. From that time, the flow was steady. We found out that we couldn’t see anyone there because so many people were in buses, in trains and, particularly, on the roads, that the roads were clogged. Once the flow started, it was just volumes of people coming.

"All sorts of dress is evident, from the Ivy League suit to overalls and straw hats and even some Texas ten-gallon hats. Quite a few people are carrying knapsacks, blankets and so on, apparently anticipating a not too comfortable trip home tonight." —Radio reporter Al Hulsen

Barry Rosenberg, Civil rights activist (later a psychotherapist)

I could hardly sleep the night before the march. I got there early. Maybe 10:30 in the morning, people were milling around. There were maybe 20,000 folks out there. It was August I forgot to wear a hat. I was a little concerned about getting burned up. I went and got a Coke. When I got back, people just poured in from all directions. If you were facing the podium, I was on the right-hand side. People were greeting each other I got chills, I got choked up. People were hugging and shaking hands and asking “Where are you from?”

"One woman from San Diego, California, showed us her plane ticket. She said her grandfather sold slaves and she was here ‘to help wipe out evil.' " —Radio reporter Arnold Shaw

Early that morning the ten of us [the Big Six, plus four other march leaders] boarded cars that brought us to Capitol Hill. We visited the leadership of the House and the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans. In addition, we met on the House side with the chairman of the judiciary committee, the ranking member, because that’s where the civil rights legislation will come. We did the same thing on the Senate side. We left Capitol Hill, walked down Constitution Avenue. Looking toward Union Station, we saw a sea of humanity hundreds, thousands of people. We thought we might get 75,000 people showing up on August 28. When we saw this unbelievable crowd coming out of Union Station, we knew it was going to be more than 75,000. People were already marching. It was like “There go my people. Let me catch up with them.” We said, “What are we going to do? The people are already marching! There go my people. Let me catch up with them.” What we did, the ten of us, was grab each other’s arms, made a line across the sea of marchers. People literally pushed us, carried us all the way, until we reached the Washington Monument and then we walked on to the Lincoln Memorial.

Joyce Ladner

I had a stage pass, so I could get on the podium. Just standing up there looking out at not very many people, then just all of the sudden, hordes of people started coming. I saw a group of people with large banners. Philadelphia NAACP could have been one section, for example, and they did come in large groups. As the day passed a lot of individual people were there. Odetta and Joan Baez and Bobby Dylan. They began warming up the crowd very early, began singing. It was not tense at all, wasn’t a picnic either. Somewhere in between people were happy to see each other, renewing acquaintances, everyone was very pleasant.

“Many people [are] sitting, picnicking along the Reflecting Pool steps below the Monument. People with headbands, arm bands, buttons all around, but in a happy holiday atmosphere.” —Radio reporter Arnold Shaw

At the post office that summer. I’d been working all day. I got on the bus [to downtown]. I was hot, sweaty, but I was determined that I was going to the march. The crowd was enormous. There were rumors, apparently substantiated, that agents of the government, intelligence agents, were actually taking pictures. Some of those individuals took pictures of me. More power to them. I had nothing to fear. I was at least in partial uniform with my postal hat [pith helmet] and shirt on.

“The crowd does seem to be picking up now. It’s getting thicker and you can hear them singing now in the background, ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah.’ ” -- Radio reporter Jeff Guylick

March on Washington in 1941 - History

A Quarter Million People and a Dream

On August 28, 1963, about a quarter-million people participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom gathering near the Lincoln Memorial.

More than 3,000 members of the press covered this historic march, in which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the exalted “I Have a Dream” speech.

Originally conceived by renowned labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, the March on Washington evolved into a collaborative effort amongst major civil rights groups and icons of the day.

Stemming from a rapidly growing tide of grassroots support and outrage over the nation’s racial inequities, the rally drew over 260,000 people from across the nation.

Celebrated as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—speech of the 20th century, Dr. King’s celebrated speech, “I Have a Dream,” was carried live by television stations across the country.

Pictured: (Standing l. to r.) Matthew Ahmann, Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Rabbi Joachim Prinz John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and labor union leader Walter Reuther (Standing l. to r.) Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee A. Philip Randolph, labor union leader who conceptualized the march Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins. Photo Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

A March 20 Years in the Making

In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph first conceptualized a “march for jobs” in protest of the racial discrimination against African Americans from jobs created by WWII and the New Deal programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The march was stalled, however, after negotiations between Roosevelt and Randolph prompted the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) and an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries.

The FEPC dissolved just five years later, causing Randolph to revive his plans.

He looked to the charismatic Dr. King to breathe new life into the march.

NAACP and SCLC Center the March on Civil Rights

By the late 1950s, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were also planning to march on Washington, this time to march for freedom.

As the years passed on, the Civil Rights Act was still stalled in Congress, and equality for Americans of color still seemed like a far-fetched dream.

Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks at the March on Washington. Photo: Bob Adelman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Randolph, his chief aide, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. King all decided it would be best to combine the two causes into one mega-march, the March for Jobs and Freedom.

NAACP, headed by Roy Wilkins, was called upon to be one of the leaders of the march.

As one of the largest and most influential civil rights groups at the time, NAACP harnessed the collective power of its members, organizing a march that was focused on the advancement of civil rights and the actualization of Dr. King’s dream.

The Big Six

A quarter-million people strong, the march drew activists from far and wide.

Leaders of the six prominent civil rights groups at the time joined forces in organizing the march.

The group included Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP Dr. King, Chairman of the SCLC James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League.

Dr. King, originally slated to speak for 4 minutes, went on to speak for 16 minutes, giving one of the most iconic speeches in history

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

It was the largest gathering for civil rights of its time. An estimated 250,000 people attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, arriving in Washington, D.C. by planes, trains, cars, and buses from all over the country.

March on Washington Intro

Demonstrators marching in the street during the March on Washington, 1963

Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, LOC, LC-U9- 10344-14

The event focused on employment discrimination, civil rights abuses against African Americans, Latinos, and other disenfranchised groups, and support for the Civil Rights Act that the Kennedy Administration was attempting to pass through Congress. This momentous display of civic activism took place on the National Mall , "America's Front Yard" and was the culmination of an idea born more than 20 years before.

Organizing the March

Bayard Rustin (L) and Cleveland Robinson (R) in front of the March on Washington headquarters, August 7, 1963

Photo by Orlando Fernandez, LOC, LC-USZ62-133369

By the 1960s, a public expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo was considered necessary and a march was planned for 1963, with Randolph as the titular head. Joining Randolph in sponsoring the March were the leaders of the five major civil rights groups: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Whitney Young of the National Urban League (NUL), Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), James Farmer of Congress On Racial Equality, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These "Big Six," as they were called, expanded to include Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), Eugene Carson Blake of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, and Matthew Ahmann of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. In addition, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women participated in the planning, but she operated in the background of this male dominated, leadership group.

The March was organized in less than 3 months. Randolph handed the day-to-day planning to his partner in the March on Washington Movement, Bayard Rustin , a pioneer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and a brilliant strategist of nonviolent direct action protests. Rustin planned everything, from training "marshals" for crowd control using nonviolent techniques to the sound system and setup of porta-potties. There was also an Organizing Manual that laid out a statement of purpose, specific talking points, and logistics. Rustin saw that to maintain order over such a large crowd, there needed to be a highly organized support structure.

A Powerful, Peaceful Protest

View of crowds on the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, August 28, 1963

Photo by Warren K. Leffler, LOC, LC-U9- 10360-5

With that many people converging on the city, there were concerns about violence. The Washington, D.C. police force mobilized 5,900 officers for the march and the government mustered 6,000 soldiers and National Guardsmen as additional protection. President Kennedy thought that if there were any problems, the negative perceptions could undo the civil rights bill making its way through Congress. In the end, the crowds were calm and there were no incidents reported by police.

While the March was a peaceful occasion, the words spoken that day at the Lincoln Memorial were not just uplifting and inspirational such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, they were also penetrating and pointed. There was a list of "Ten Demands" from the sponsors, insisting on a fair living wage, fair employment policies, and desegregation of school districts. John Lewis in his speech said that "we do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now" and that Congress needed to pass "meaningful legislation" or people would march through the South. Although the SNCC chairman had toned down his remarks at the request of white liberals and moderate black allies, he still managed to criticize both political parties for moving too slowly on civil rights. Others such as Whitney Young and Joachim Prinz spoke of the need for justice, for equal opportunity, for full access to the American Dream promised with the Declaration of Independence and reaffirmed with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. They spoke of jobs, and of a life free from the indifference of lawmakers to people's plights.


The March on Washington took place during a nationwide civil rights movement in which Black Americans were fighting to receive the same treatment as white Americans.

Although slavery was made illegal in the United States in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, Black people continued to be treated unfairly. For example, beginning in the 1890s, southern states passed what were called “Jim Crow” laws that discriminated against Black people and segregated (or separated) them from white people. The laws varied by state, but they often forced Black people to use different bathrooms from white people, ride in different train cars, or attend different schools. These “separate” facilities were often in poor condition. Many southern states also created tests to prevent Black people from voting.

Black people were also not being hired for jobs they were qualified for—especially government jobs or defense jobs like building warplanes—just because of their race. In 1941, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph organized a march to protest that. But six days before the event, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed an executive order that banned discrimination in the defense industry and created a group to enforce the order. Randolph called off the march, but five years later, Congress stopped funding the enforcement group, and many companies went back to discriminating against Black people.

By the 1960s, many Black people were still unemployed or had low-paying jobs, and much of the country was still segregated by race. Civil rights leaders, including King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, joined with Randolph to organize another change-making demonstration: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the official name of the march.

The goal of the march was to urge President John F. Kennedy to pass a civil rights bill that would end segregation in public places like schools, ensure easier access to voting, train and place unemployed workers, and end the practice of not hiring people because of their race. The March on Washington was scheduled on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The March on Washington, Memory, & Intellectual History

I thought it important to write a short piece on the March on Washington in light of the Fiftieth anniversary of the march this week. As one of the seminal events of 1963 (a year filled with seminal events, it’s easy to see), and a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington has captured the imaginations of millions of Americans since the summer of 1963. Of course, the commemorations of the March on Washington include certain memories of the event for certain groups of Americans.

For instance, the March on Washington this year has become a rallying cry for African American and many liberal activists. The George Zimmerman trial, Stop and Frisk, and battles across the nation over voting rights have highlighted that, despite the progress made on civil rights in the last fifty years, much work (and healing) remains to be done. Within that, the March on Washington itself has become contested ground for partisans, with many liberals and Left activists arguing that its original meaning has become lost. For example, Gary Younge of The Nation magazine has written for the September 2 issue a cover story entitled “The Misremembering of ‘I Have A Dream,” which is excerpted from his larger book project, The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. In the same issue, Ari Berman, a liberal journalist at the magazine, writes of the need for another march. Rick Perlstein, who has in my opinion worked very hard to rewrite the story of the 1960s as not just a string of liberal triumphs but rather, as a highly partisan and contentious era even before Watts and Vietnam, also has a blog post up titled “The March on Washington in Historical Context.” Here, he reminds readers that before the march began, many white Americans were concerned about a large gathering of African Americans in the nation’s capital. And that doesn’t even include President Kennedy’s attempt to moderate the rhetoric of the March.

While the March on Washington commemorative events will, hopefully, spark some serious discussion in the national media about how far the United States has to go on race, it’s also important to note what probably won’t be discussed. For instance, A. Philip Randolph’s original attempt at a March on Washington, in 1941, showed the determination of African Americans to achieve a piece of the economic pie that was growing as a result of America’s imminent entry into World War II. Summoning up that particular memory, however, may stun some Americans, but nonetheless the connections between the two movements are noteworthy. Most important, both stressed economics as a key factor in the plight facing African Americans. After all, the 1963 march’s title was “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. Economic justice, political equality, and social justice were unified concerns for Randolph, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and many others who participated in the 1963 event.

Here is where I think intellectual historians can really add to the discussion. Books like David Chappell’s Stone of Hope capture the thinking behind both the integration and segregation forces in the South during this time period. The decoupling of economic and social justice during the movement, however, is something that intellectual historians have also reviewed. One book that comes to mind is Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights, for instance, which argues that King was always interested in economic justice from his first foray onto the national stage during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. It’s also interesting to think about the language of economics and politics in the 1960s, far more radical, I’d argue, than it is today (at least in the mainstream, public sphere). Considering that liberals and radicals were able to argue about the merits of the War on Poverty, and that King himself was able to press for a Poor People’s Campaign by 1968, it’s interesting to think about the economic roots of the March on Washington, which have been largely forgotten in the previous five decades. A fifty year time span which, by the way, has also seen the ascendancy (or perhaps return is a better term) of a much more conservative argument about the role of government in the free market.

One last thing: perhaps it is more appropriate to talk about the Marches on Washington, which include not only the planned (but ultimately canceled) 1941 March, and the 1963 event, but also the 1967 Vietnam War protest, various rallies for and against abortion, and even recent rallies led by Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I can’t help but think that, with these marches, various groups are attempting their own pilgrimage to a cathedral in the American civil religious sphere. A March on Washington is a stamp of legitimacy, a way to show the power of your movement. Of course, it’s also worth considering that the last two examples were rallies that were designed to be as nonpartisan as possible, but certainly weren’t interpreted that way by many (especially the Beck rally).

These few thoughts are only an attempt to think about one majestic event’s place in public discourse. Today, the March on Washington is both remembered fondly by its participants and millions of Americans today, while also seen in the light of current debates about race, economics, and political power. As always, the battle between history and memory takes on a curiously political tinge.

Watch the video: Η Μάχη της Μόσχας 1941 - Ιστορικές Αναπαραστάσεις (January 2022).