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March on Washington (1963)

March on Washington (1963)

The 1963 March on Washington, in which a quarter million people demonstrated for civil rights on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. , was the largest demonstration for human rights the country had ever seen. Officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the march was the idea of A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, who had been a labor and civil rights activist for nearly four decades.

The 1941 proposed march

Randolph had proposed the first March on Washington in 1941 during World War II (1939–45), when, despite the accelerating war economy, African Americans were barred from jobs in the war industry. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) failed to act to remedy this situation, Randolph called for fifty thousand African Americans to descend on Washington, D.C., in protest. President Roosevelt turned to moderate civil rights leaders, such as Walter White (1893–1955), the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

(NAACP), to help him ease the tensions, but Randolph refused to back down. African American newspapers publicized the proposed march, and the estimated number of potential protesters grew. Facing the prospects of an embarrassing march, in June 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries.

After 1941, the March on Washington group continued to meet annually to discuss African American demands for economic equality. As the African American civil rights movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, black leaders began to discuss and plan a new march. Their goal was to prompt the federal government to act on pending civil rights legislation that was lagging in Congress. Chaired by Randolph and organized by fellow civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom sought to bring more than one hundred thousand people to the nation's capital. Two top civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the NAACP, put aside their historic differences to support the event.

Reluctant support

Randolph and Rustin set the date for the march for August 28, 1963. The goals of the march were to call attention to the need for the passage of President John F. Kennedy 's (1917–1963; served 1961–63) civil rights bill; job training and placement for African Americans and an end to job segregation; and desegregation of public schools by the end of the year. The Kennedy administration urged the march's leaders to reconsider, arguing that the civil rights bill would have a better chance of passing if blacks waited quietly. But when President Kennedy was told that the march would go on as planned, he gave his reluctant support.

“I Have a Dream”

News of the planned march spread across the country. As the day drew near, buses and trains arrived in Washington, pouring forth 250,000 demonstrators, nearly a quarter of them white. The attendance went far beyond the organizers’ expectations. While the crowd waited for the rally's speakers, attendees listened to musicians, including folk poet Bob Dylan (1941–), gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972), and popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Several speakers gave stirring addresses. The featured speaker of the march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), electrified the audience with his “I Have a Dream” speech, which has become one of the most famous speeches in American history. In one of its many stirring moments, King prayed for the day “when all God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

A model of peaceful protest

The successful 1963 March on Washington represented the high point of the first phase of the modern civil rights movement and expressed the ideals and aspirations of nonviolent direct action. (See also Civil Disobedience .) Following the march, Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, numerous groups of varying political stripes, including poor people, women, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, black men, Christian men, and cancer patients, have attempted to use the March on Washington as a model for delivering demands to the federal government. While none have achieved the success of the 1963 event, the March on Washington continues to symbolize the hopeful possibilities of nonviolent, mass-based protest in the United States.

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