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March on Washington

March on Washington

The first March on Washington was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. During the Depression, African Americans did not benefit equally from New Deal programs. As the war effort accelerated and industry expanded, racial discrimination continued, as white employers denied black workers access to jobs in war industries. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to act to remedy this situation, Randolph called for 50,000 African Americans to descend on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to protest. Roosevelt turned to moderate civil rights leaders, like NAACP Executive Director Walter White, for aid in quelling the storm, but Randolph refused to back down. With the help of African-American newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the New York Amsterdam News, which publicized the event, the estimated size of the proposed March on Washington continued to grow. Facing the prospects of an embarrassing march, FDR relented in June of 1941 and issued Executive Order 8802 which forbid racial discrimination by defense contractors and established a temporary Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).

When discrimination persisted in the United States and the promise of the "Double V" ("victory at home and victory abroad") campaign failed to materialize after the war, the March on Washington group continued to meet annually to discuss African-American demands for economic equality. As the Civil Rights movement emerged and developed in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, and the student sit-in wave, the political climate changed and black leaders began to discuss and plan a new March on Washington aimed at pressuring the federal government to act on pending civil rights legislation lagging in the Congress. Chaired by Randolph and organized by Bayard Rustin, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom sought to bring over 100,000 people to the nation's capitol. Significantly, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put aside their historic differences to support the event. Even so, tensions did simmer beneath the seemingly unified surface of the event when moderate leaders and clergymen forced John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to temper criticism of President John F. Kennedy in his remarks.

In the end, however, the March on Washington was a tremendous practical and symbolic success. Over 250,000 black and white Americans stood before the Lincoln Memorial, listened to speeches, songs, prayers, and poetry and registered their demand for racial justice in the United States. A wide variety of Civil Rights leaders, clergymen, politicians, labor leaders, entertainers, and thousands of local civil rights supporters participated in an event that climaxed with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech. In that speech, King appealed to the highest ideals of American democracy, stating, "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed -we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I still have a dream!"

The successful 1963 March on Washington represented the culmination of the first phase of the modern Civil Rights movement and expressed the ideals and aspirations of non-violent direct action. 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, none so successfully, 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 for many the hopeful possibilities of mass-based protest and non-violent direct action in the United States.

—Patrick D. Jones

Further Reading:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Garfinkel, Herbert. When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politic of FEPC. Glencoe, Illinois, Free Press, 1959.

Haskins, James. The March on Washington. New York, Harper Collins, 1993.

Reed, Merl. "The FBI, MOWM, and CORE, 1941-1946." Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 21, No. 4, 1991.

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