1963 March on Washington

"I Have a Dream" speechAlmost 100 years after the "War to Free the Slaves" and the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still suffered from segregation, racism, and discrimination.  Segregated education, with African American children usually being forced to attend under-funded, neglected schools, was common and fully legal until 1954, when a Supreme Court decision,  Brown versus the Board of Education, ruled racially segregated schools were inherently unequal.

On December 1st, 1955, a tired Rosa Parks did not stand up to give her seat on a public bus to a white man, as required by law.  African Americans boycotted the bus service in Montgomery Alabama for more than a year.  A young minister that had recently moved to Montgomery became the voice of the movement.  This began an new era in the battle for civil rights.  It was also the beginning of the public career of a great American leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The summer of 1963 marked a turning point in the fight for Civil Rights.   In communities like Birmingham, violence against those that sought equal rights was getting worse.  The Children's March succeeded in grabbing national and world attention.  People were shocked to see the brutal force that was used on defenseless, non-resistant children.  People were outraged that thousands of children were being sent to jail for no real crime.  Finally, the world saw Birmingham's Sheriff Connor as a racist, bigoted symbol for the worst of the "old south."

National politicians and the Kennedy Administration had not gotten involved in regional battles for Civil Rights.  Traditionally, these were viewed as "State" issues.  The Children's March changed all of this.  The Federal Government could no longer watch silently.  The rest of the world was watching.  America could not be a global leader and talk about "freedom" and "justice" abroad if it did not take care of these issues at home.

March organizers planned to symbolize their demands for “the passage of the Kennedy Administration Civil Rights Legislation without compromise of filibuster,” and demand integration of all public schools by the end of the year.  They demanded a federal program to help the unemployed, and a Federal Fair Employment Act to ban job discrimination.

According to U.S. New & World Report (September 9, 1963), the organizers of the March on Washington had 9 "demands:"

  1. Passage of "meaningful" civil-rights legislation at this session of Congress- no filibusting.
  2. Immediate elimination of all racial segregation in public schools throughout the nation.
  3. A public works program to provide training and jobs to the nation's unemployed.
  4. A federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring.
  5. A nationwide $2-an-hour minimum wage.
  6. Withholding of federal funds from programs in where discrimination exist.
  7. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
  8. Broadening the Fair Labor Standards Act to include currently-excluded employment areas.
  9. Giving authority to the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.

Organizers expected 100,000-200,000 people to show up.  They made plans for every contingency -- nothing was left to chance.  To help bring people to and from the march, 2,500 buses and 40 trains were chartered.  Outdoor toilets were set up, water fountains, first aide stations, and nurses were placed along the route of the march.  While the event was organized as a peaceful march, 5,600 police and 4,000 army troops were on hand to oversee the events that would unfold.  For those that could not make the journey to Washington DC, symbolic marches and events were held across the United States and at American Embassies around the world. 

The march was sponsored by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Urban League, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Negro American Labor Committee.  These organizations were responsible for raising much of the money to pay for the event.  Some labor unions participated, but the largest labor union, AFL-CIO refused to join.  

The march started promptly at dawn, August 28.  Over a quarter million of people started to march towards the Lincoln Memorial, singing, "We Shall Overcome."  As the march continued, the size of the crowd swelled.  By all accounts, it was a peaceful event, without any incidents.  The organizers were grateful for that.  The extra law-enforcement on hand was not needed.

At the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King and a number of civil rights advocates addressed the crowd.  Dr. King delivered his, "I Have a Dream" speech.   However, this was not his only address that day.  Dr. King spoke to crowd a number of times throughout the event.

Dr. King declared “we will not hate you, but we cannot obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we will still love you... But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we will win you in the process”

Popular musicians of the day were on hand and scheduled to provide entertainment throughout the day.  Performers included Josh White; Odetta, Mahalia Jackson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; and trio Peter, Paul, and Mary.  

It was a multi-racial crowd, African Americans and whites marching together, singing, and celebrating the changes that were taking place in America.  After the march, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuter said the event "was the beginning of a broad policing of conscience."  

The march was a success.  Not only did it get people's attention, the March on Washington engaged and united citizens.  Certainly the people that were present felt energized and enthusiastic about the work that was yet to be done.  Across the nation, those that could not, did not, or would not attend had to acknowledge that times were changing.

Initially, the White House was not enthusiastic about the march.  Many felt that if would not help.  Afterwards, President John F. Kennedy saw the event as a tremendous success.  It has been reported that Kennedy met with Dr. King and said, "Now I have a dream."

Meeting with the march's organizers, Kennedy stated, "the cause of 20 million Negroes has not only been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation’s shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significantly is the contribution to all mankind."

Kennedy planned to use the goodwill and momentum of the The March on Washington to push for and pass the Administration’s Civil Rights Bill, but Kennedy was assassinated before seeing the law passed.  When Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, assumed the presidency; he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

Not only did the march create the political climate that allowed the enactment of The Civil Rights Bill, The March on Washington made the world more fully appreciate the determination and skillful way the Civil Rights Movement was created, organized, and conducted by talented, motivated African Americans.  Those involved with the movement earned a great deal of respect across this nation and around the world.

By Bill Breitsprecher
©2006, Breitlinks
All Rights Reserved

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