The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 is widely considered the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, as it not only led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also gave the world Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned “I Have A Dream” speech.
With an estimated 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial, the March was one of the largest rallies for human rights in the history of America in its call for civil and economic rights for the nation’s African Americans.
The March was organized by leaders of a number of civil rights and religious groups who put aside their sometimes considerable differences in methodology and ideology to form a coalition that became known as the “Big Six.” They included:
• A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925;
• Roy Wilkins, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and
The genesis of the March on Washington, however, came from Randolph and activist Bayard Rustin, who founded The March on Washington Movement in 1941.
Blacks had benefited less than other groups from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s.
When Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by 50,000 people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, and with the threat of thousands descending on Washington to protest the government’s failures in these areas, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941.
This historic legislation banned discriminatory employment practices by federal agencies, all unions and companies contracted to perform war-related work. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce the new policy.
With all demands met, Randolph and Rustin claimed victory and called off that March on Washington. Nearly two million Blacks were employed in defense work by the end of 1944.
Fast forward two decades and the Big Six were so moved by the activism, ideals, example and results achieved by Randolph and Rustin’s Movement, that they modeled the historic 1963 March after it, with Randolph and Rustin as the key architects.
The 1963 March was designed specifically to advocate passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was then stalled in Congress. This new March for Jobs and Freedom was expected to attract 100,000 participants and then President John F. Kennedy showed as little enthusiasm for the march as Roosevelt had, but this time the Black leaders would not be dissuaded.
A Whole Lot of Negroes!
You have to understand the significance of what was being proposed had on America at the time – this was going to be the first ceremony of such magnitude ever initiated and dominated by African Americans – and expectations ran from apprehensions to pure dread.
• On Meet the Press, reporters grilled Roy Wilkins and Dr. King about widespread foreboding that “it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.”
• The Pentagon had 19,000 troops standing by in the suburbs.
• The jails shifted inmates to other prisons to make room for mass arrests;
• The city banned all sales of alcoholic beverages.
• Hospitals made room for riot casualties by postponing elective surgery.
• And wonder of wonders – regularly scheduled television programs were pre-empted.
With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly larger than Kennedy’s inauguration two years earlier.
On August 28, estimates were that more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars converged on Washington, D.C., while all regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses headed there were also filled to capacity.
But what happened that day made all the apprehension unnecessary.
Veteran Washington and New York journalist Elisabeth Goss Stevens, whose book Ride A Bright and Shining Pony focuses on the 1963 March, writes:
“On that hot summer day 50 years ago, an estimated 250,000 people came to Washington peacefully from all over America. They gathered downtown in the long Mall between the Capitol and the Potomac River. Around the spire of the Washington Monument, beneath the spreading trees, beside the long, quiet reflecting pool, and as close as they could get to the great, marble-columned memorial containing the statue of Abraham Lincoln, they waited.
“It was there, at the broad white steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the leaders of the March had gathered. Among them were Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Council, a Berlin rabbi of the Hitler era, and Walter Reuther, leader of the United Automobile Workers.
“Reuther pictured the March as a ‘great crusade to mobilize the moral conscience of America.’ Rabbi Prinz warned, ‘bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems,’ but that ‘the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most tragic problem is silence.’
“Recalling Nazi Germany, he added: ‘A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of silent onlookers.’”
Before and between the speeches there was music. Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan all sang.
Then, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the masses. He called the gathering “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”… and then he talked about his dream.
50th Anniversary Celebration Activities For The March On Washington
There will be two marches to commemorate the great event.
• On Wednesday, August 28, President Barack Obama will speak to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, following the “March for Jobs and Justice” at the very spot where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
On Saturday, August 24, what’s being called the “official commemorative march” will take place under the auspices of the King family and many of the groups that led the original march, including the NAACP, SCLC, National Urban League, etc.
A plethora of newer groups of mixed agenda bags will also be represented, from Tom Joyner, labor, education, and hip hop to gay/lesbian, military, politicians and organizations of other ethnicities.
“If this year has shown us anything, it’s that the work of the 1963 March is not yet finished,” says NAACP head Ben Jealous. “Voting rights are under attack, Black unemployment continues to soar, and thousands of Black children are living in impoverished neighborhoods and attending segregated schools.
Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, a key organizer of the August 24 March, says that “While we celebrate all that was achieved in the 50 years since that March, we recognize that the ‘Dream’ has not been fulfilled and the battle for justice is ongoing. This march is not just a commemoration, but a continuation of the efforts of 50 years ago.”
• On Friday, August 23, the Rev. Jesse Jackson will host town hall meetings on “Sports: 50 Years On and Off the Playing Field – How Far Have We Come?; “Poverty in America;” and The Voting Rights Act.”
All forums will take place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. and reservations are required for $100. To reserve a place, call 404/525-5663.
• To celebrate and honor this landmark moment in our nation’s history, the U.S. Postal Service will release a limited-edition 1963 March on Washington stamp on August 23. It is the third in the Civil Rights Stamp Series, which also includes the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks stamps). The stamps can now be at www.usps.com/stamps.
• The Annapolis, Maryland-based Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Committee, Inc. will unveil the nation’s first memorial to the 250,000 “foot soldiers” of the March – the ordinary citizens who risked the threat of personal harm to magnify the impact of the words of the civil rights leaders who spoke that day.
The public is invited to the unveiling of the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Memorial, which includes the names of more than 500 marchers on the 2-½ ton granite memorial.
• The Black Women’s Roundtable, an initiative of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, will bring leaders together to discuss the contribution women have made – past and present – to the Civil Rights Movement and to begin to craft a multi-ethnic women’s public policy agenda.
The women’s gathering is focused on the march themes of jobs, freedom, peace and social justice, and will be held Thursday Aug. 22, at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill.
Participants include the Rev. Bernice King, CEO, The King Center; Ingrid Saunders-Jones, Chair, National Council of Negro Women; and Myrlie Evers-Williams, Chair Emeritus, NAACP.
• The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum here in Chicago will host a triple celebration on August 24 and 25 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March, pay tribute to A. Philip Randolph, and to commemorate the founding anniversary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black labor union in America to be chartered under the AFL.
The two-day, triple celebration takes place at the Museum at 10406 South Maryland in the historic Pullman community. It begins on Saturday, August 24, when all of the events are free and open to the public, and will climax on Sunday, August 25, with a fundraising reception at the Museum.
On Saturday, August 24 from 1-5 p.m., renowned historian Dr. Christopher Reed and members of the Chicago Black History Forum will share nuggets about the Movement through lectures. One of the forums will chronicle the inspirational saga of the Pullman Porters. There will also be films, interactive activities, music and vendors.
On Sunday, August 25, a gala fundraiser reception will be held from 5-9 p.m. at the Museum, where the legacy of Randolph, and the launch of the Black Labor Movement will be commemorated.
Tickets for this tax-deductible celebration are $50. Proceeds go toward continuing the Museum’s mission to educate the public about the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and the contributions made by African-Americans to America’s labor movement.
Newly elected 2nd District Congresswoman Robin Kelly and Illinois State Representative Elgie Sims are among the dignitaries who will attend.
The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is the only cultural facility in the world devoted exclusively to highlighting the accomplishments of Randolph and the Black Labor movement.
Founded in 1995 by historian Dr. Lyn Hughes, the Museum has emerged as the premiere Mecca for chronicling and showcasing those stories. Opened year-round, the Museum hosts exhibits, programs and has an array of resources on these subjects.
For more information about the events and about the Museum, visit its website at www.aprpullmanportermuseum.org.