“The greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have A Dream” speech
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous “I Have A Dream” speech. On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, a quarter million civil rights activists marched down the National Mall lobbying for congressional passage of a civil rights bill. Considered to be the Civil Rights Movement’s high-water mark, the march was also to gain national attention to the issue of black unemployment.
The idea for the march was stemming from A. Philip Randolph’s 1941 suggestion of a huge rally in the nation’s capital. Randolph was a leading African-American civil rights activist and he organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (the first predominantly black labor union). Martin Luther King Jr. was interested in using a massive march to lobby congressional approval of President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. He went to Randolph. While King’s main objective was the bill, Randolph’s wanted to focus on black unemployment which was more than twice the rate of white unemployment. Wages for a black worker was about a half of what a white worker earned.
Randolph and King knew that if a march was going to take place, it was crucial to have a talented organizer. So they turned to Bayard Rustin. An openly gay man with an FBI file of over 10,000 pages and, he was active in the civil rights, gay rights and nonviolence movements. He was King’s key adviser since the late 1950s and was a strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rustin agreed to help and became the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Not every civil rights leader agreed with the King’s idea. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had many concerns. The first was that the march would cost too much money and, he attested, it would not have any effect on legislation. He also believed that the march would be overshadowed by Rustin’s homosexuality, draft dodging (for the Korean War) and former political beliefs (membership with the Young Communist League). Whitney Young, the executive director of the National Urban League, was afraid that the political nature of the march would jeopardize his organization’s tax-exempt status.Regardless of the reservations, the major civil rights leaders signed on to support the march. However, the name “March on Washington” was changed to the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Randolph was chosen as the event’s direction and he in turn named Rustin as the deputy director. In December 1962, they began to plan.
On June 22, the Big Six met with President Kennedy. [The Big Six were the prominent leaders of the various civil rights organizations. They included A. Philip Randolph (director of the march), Martin Luther King Jr. (president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP), Whitney Young (executive director of the National Urban League), James Farmer (president of the Congress of Racial Equality) and John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).] They notified him of their intentions and gave a list of specific objectives such as a comprehensive civil rights bill, voter rights, job program and school desegregation. Kennedy did not like the idea. Partly because his approval rating took a dip when he supported the civil rights movement. Kennedy was worried that the march would bring a large crowd to Washington and it would turn violent. A month later, he endorsed the march. Kennedy told his advisers, “Well, if we can’t stop it, we’ll run the damn thing.”
Now it was time for all the logistics. A Wednesday was chosen since it fell in the middle of the week and it would be less likely to encounter trouble. The demonstration site was changed to the Lincoln Memorial instead of the Capital. Chief organizer Rustin began booking thousands of buses and drilled hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to act as marshals. He also rented portable toilets, organized food and water as well as chose speakers and wrote slogans. All in all, Rustin was the engine to the march’s success.
On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, 21 special trains, 1,514 buses and countless car pools brought the quarter million people from all over the country to the Mall. Singing and clapping filled the air as the marchers sang freedom songs. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, Josh White and Peter, Paul and Mary warmed up the crowd with two hours of music. The march to the Lincoln Memorial was led by the civil rights leaders along with religious leaders. A number of Hollywood stars and famous faces came out and marched – Ossie Davis, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, James Garner, Kick Gregory, Charlton Heston, Dennis Hopper, Lena Horne, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Jackie Robinson – to name a few.
The march had a number of notable speakers, including many of the Big Six. Josephine Baker was the only female speaker. She wore her Free French uniform with her medal of the Légion d’honneur upon it while introducing the “Negro Women for Civil Rights,” including Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates. The day was capped with King’s infamous “I Have a Dream” speech.
His 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial became a defining moment of the civil rights movement. King called for an end to racism in the United States while invoking and citing parts of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the United States Constitution. The eloquent words moved, and continue to move people into action against inequality. John Lewis later commented on how King’s speech moved him.
When I listen to the speech and remember that day, Dr. King had the power, the ability and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. and was also the first to be televised. Much of momentum of the civil rights movement was halted three months later when President Kennedy was assassinated. The effects the march on civil rights varies between scholars. However, the march is usually credited with propelling government action on civil rights. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and President Johnson signed it into law.
Erik Bruun & Jay Crosby, eds. Our Nation’s Archive: The History of the United States in Documents, New York: Tess Press, 2009, 733-735.
Bruce J. Dierenfield, The Civil Rights Movement, Rev. ed. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2008.
Kevin S. Hile, ed. The Big Book of Answers, Canton: Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2003, 166-167.
Martin Luther King III, “Still striving for MLK’s dream in the 21st century,” The Washington Post, August 25, 2010.
NPR, “‘A People’s History’ Of The March On Washington,” August 28, 2010.
Steve Hendrix, “Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, was crucial to the movement,” The Washington Post, August 21, 2011.
Huffington Post, “March On Washington: 10 Facts About America’s Historical Demonstration,” August 24, 2013.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute (Stanford University)