It was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital with the participation of over 250,000 people. The purpose of the March on Washington was to make demands for civil rights legislation and the elimination of racial segregation in public schools and jobs. The speakers at the rally included Dr. Martin Luther King who made the "I have a dream" speech, which remains one of the most famous speeches in American history.
Facts about March on Washington
During the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. had led Civil Rights protests in Birmingham, the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.
The Birmingham campaign in Mississippi led to extreme violence, riots and thousands of arrests, including that of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Following the events of the Birmingham campaign direct-action protests flared across the country. President Kennedy was outraged at the violence and level of brutality used in Birmingham, Mississippi. JFK was embarrassed by the international media coverage of the race riots and concerned by accusations that the government was losing control.
The events during the Birmingham campaign led JFK to order his administration to prepare a new Civil Rights Bill. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, realized that JFK would have difficulty pushing the new Civil Rights Bill through Congress.
To achieve their aims the Civil Rights leaders needed a way to lobby Congress, attract powerful attention from the media and increase public support for their cause.
A. Philip Randolph, a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the American labor movement, together with Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin, had previously planned a similar massive protest march on Washington for jobs, justice, equality and opportunity during WW2.
A. Philip Randolph knew that such a protest would be extremely effective. In 1941 he had threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest against segregation in the armed forces and racial discrimination in employment.
A. Philip Randolph's radical threat of a march on Washington had prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 to ban racial discrimination in the national defense industry.
A. Philip Randolph suggested the idea of a massive march on Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr. and MLK agreed to his proposal. The threat of a march on Washington drew the attention of the government and President Kennedy.
On June 22, 1963 President Kennedy met with Civil Rights leaders at the White House to get them to call off the march on Washington. The Civil Rights leaders who attended the meeting were A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC), Jim Farmer (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkens (NAACP), and Whitney Young (Urban League).
The Civil Rights leaders would not call off the march but agreed with JFK that the event would be a legally sanctioned march, in cooperation with authorities. Agreement was also reached that all marchers would leave Washington before nightfall and that no unauthorized banners (criticizing the government) would be allowed.
The March on Washington was scheduled for Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The Civil Rights leaders had just eight weeks to organize the massive event.
The job of organizing the event was controversially given to Bayard Rustin. He was was whole-heartedly supported by A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Farmer but Roy Wilkens of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League raised objections.
Bayard Rustin had been sent to jail during WW2 as a Conscientious Objector and being gay had once been arrested as a homosexual on a “morals” charge. Wilkens and Young were fearful of adverse publicity but knew that Rustin was the only man with the organizational skills to get the job done.
A compromise was reached and it was agreed that A. Philip Randolph would be the head of the march, in name only, and Bayard Rustin would be the deputy director of the march.
Organizing the March on Washington in such a short space of time was incredibly difficult. Bayard Rustin established a headquarters in Harlem, near 7th Avenue, Manhattan in New York City. Black and white supporters volunteered to help. Communications and transportation were major issues.
Funds had to be raised to help to pay for long distance travel from all parts of the country to Washington. Civil Rights groups such as the NAACP, CORE, SCLC and SNCC were galvanized into raising funds together with church and student groups and labor unions.
The coordination of transport including trains, planes, and automobiles was an enormous task.
Speakers had to be organized and representatives from different religious bodies and inter-denominational organizations had to be contacted. Speeches had to be prepared and suitable music, hymns and prayers had to be agreed.
The speakers included all of the "Big Six" civil-rights leaders, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders and labor leader Walter Reuther. The one female speaker was Josephine Baker.
There was also entertainment to be considered. Famous singers of the time such as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson all volunteered to participate in the event.
Actors were also to be represented by famous celebrities such as Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier.
The program of events had to be agreed, who was going to talk and how much time each person had available. Once agreed, the program had to be distributed across the nation as did a statement prepared by the heads of ten organizations calling for discipline in connection with the March on Washington.
The Lincoln Memorial program of events was also accompanied by 10 Demands of the March on Washington which were to be read by Bayard Rustin.
Thousands traveled by road, rail, and air to Washington D.C. on Wednesday, August 28. At 11.30 am they began to march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
1. The National Anthem: Marian Anderson was scheduled to lead the National Anthem but failed to make it on time and was replaced by Camilla Williams.
2. Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, said a prayer which began the March on Washington program of events.
3. The March on Washington director, A. Philip Randolph, delivered the opening remarks to the largest and longest demonstration in the history of the nation. In his speech he spoke of the moral revolution for jobs and freedom
4. Presbyterian Church leader, Rev Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, gave a speech emphasizing the need for all religious leaders to come together in order to achieve a racially integrated society.
5. Bayard Rustin led a tribute to "Negro Women Fighters for Freedom" in which which Daisy Bates spoke briefly in place of Myrlie Evers, who had missed her flight. The tribute introduced Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Prince E. Lee, and Gloria Richardson.
6. SNCC chairman John Lewis, one of the original 1961 Freedom Riders, had some of his original speech censored because he criticized the Kennedy administration. His revised speech was still fiery and emphasized the need to protect people from police brutality.
7. White Labor leader Walter Reuther gave a speech which linked the goals of organized labor to those of the black freedom struggle.
8. CORE chairman Floyd McKissick replaced CORE director James Farmer, who had been imprisoned following a Civil Rights demonstration in Louisiana. Floyd McKissick read a message James Farmer stating that the fight for legal and economic equality would not stop "until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North."
9. Eva Jessye directed the official choir who sang a gospel selection for the historic March on Washington.
10. Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America, offered a prayer
11. Whitney Young, National Urban League director, made it clear that Congress needed to pass legislation that would correct the damage of past discrimination
12. Mathew Ahmann, on behalf of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, asked the question "Who can call himself a man, and take part in a system of segregation which frightens the white man into denying what he knows to be right, into denying the law of his God?"
13. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins delivered a rousing speech that effectively captured the militant spirit among many civil rights workers
14. Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, wowed the crowd singing the spiritual "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" at the March on Washington
15. Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress president, spoke of Jewish ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom and said "The most shameful problem is silence"
16. The last person to make a speech was SCLC president Martin Luther King, Jr. It was at the March on Washington rally that he made one of the most famous speeches in American History, referred to as the "I have a dream" speech that powerfully visualized his dream of freedom and equality for all Americans.
17. Bayard Rustin then read the 10 Demands of the March on Washington for the crowd's approval.
18. A. Philip Randolph then led the crowd in a pledge to continue working for the goals of the march.
19. The program the March on Washington was closed with a benediction by Benjamin Mays the president of Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
The peaceful March on Washington, together with the powerful "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., built support for JFK's new Civil Rights Bill. The JFK Assassination brought a tragic and untimely death of the president before he could sign new Civil Rights Bill.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, banning discrimination, ending racial segregation, and protecting the voting rights of women and minority groups.
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