March on Washington – August 1963
In the wake of the Movement’s success in Birmingham, civil rights leaders decided to call for a great march in Washington to apply pressure on Congress to pass the civil rights bill that Kennedy had called for in June. Officially dubbed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the date for the march was set for Wednesday, August 28 with a goal of assembling 100,000 marchers from across the country. The Kennedy administration initially opposed the march, citing security concerns, but eventually acceded to it when it became apparent that the march would go on whether they supported it or not.
The event was a huge logistical feat, led primarily by Bayard Rustin. In the end, 21 special trains, over 2,000 buses, and 10 chartered airplanes (singer Harry Belafonte, whose fundraising efforts were critical to the Movement, arranged for a planeload of Hollywood celebrities to attend) helped bring over 250,000 participants to Washington, far more than had been anticipated. It is estimated that approximately 3/4 of the marchers were black and 1/4 white.
The marchers assembled at an area near the base of the Washington Monument where actor Ossie Davis took the stage and introduced a series of performers and speakers. Folk singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Peter Paul and Mary, and the SNCC Freedom Singers performed. Speakers including Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin addressed the multitudes as they assembled, then the participants marched the length of the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. They moved as individuals and in groups, waving placards, chanting slogans and singing songs.
At the Lincoln Memorial, organizers assembled on the steps of the monument around the speaker’s platform, while distinguished guests sat on folding chairs facing the platform. The rest of the marchers spread out on the grass from the foot of the memorial and along the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument. There were a series of speakers, including one from each of the ten sponsoring organizations, with each speech limited to 7 minutes duration. The final speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr. CBS television covered the entire Lincoln Memorial program, while all three television networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) broadcast King’s speech live. For most of the country (including President Kennedy), this was the first time they heard one of his speeches in its entirety. His “I Have a Dream” speech was quickly acknowledged as one of the great oratorical events in American history.
Following a benediction and the singing of “We Shall Overcome,” march organizers asked all participants to depart the mall as quickly as possible, and by nightfall all the buses, trains, and planes had left Washington (a re- quirement of the Kennedy administration). A quarter of a million demonstrators had participated and there had been no violence. It was perhaps the crowning moment of the Civil Rights Movement.
The March on Washington is generally credited with galvanizing national support for a civil rights bill, but the threat of a filibuster in the Senate (led by southern Democrats) delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act until July 1964, almost a full year later.
– Text from the 2014 exhibition THE MOVEMENT curated by Peter Boswell