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March on Washington

It was near the day's end. Many of the 250,000 persons gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial, on August 28, 1963, were tired from the day's events. They had heard music from famous entertainers and speeches from civil rights leaders. But now, some were preparing to leave when Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson drew them back into the crowd with her singing. Then Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), held them spellbound by his "dream that one day this nation [would] rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."

To these exhausted and weary civil rights marchers, these last two events reflected more than any of the day's other activities the spirit and meaning of the March on Washington. They had come to the nation's capital to express their hope that the country would afford its black citizens the constitutional rights which should have been theirs when Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War led to their freedom.

The march was the work of many individuals and groups. It was the original idea of veteran civil rights and labor leader, A. Philip Randolph. The tall, well-spoken but agitative black man had been involved in the struggle for black rights since the 1920s. In 1925 he had organized the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was probably most famous for his role in the March on Washington Movement—an effort by blacks in 1941 (during World War II) to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order outlawing racial discrimination in federal war industries by threatening to bring to Washington 100,000 protesting blacks.

Randolph's World War II march never materialized because Roosevelt agreed to his demands. But Randolph fully meant for his idea of a 1963 march to be realized. His concept was of a march on Washington D.C. that would bring together blacks and whites from all over the nation in an expression of racial unity against the injustices which made African Americans second class citizens. It was labeled a " March for Freedom and Jobs." Its specific goal was to extend pressure on the United States Congress to pass the civil rights bill President John F. Kennedy had proposed the previous June. Events of that summer made it more important that the event take place. These included the attempt by Alabama governor, George Wallace, to prevent two blacks from entering the University of Alabama on June 11 and the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader, Medgar Evers on June 12.

Randolph's long-time aide, Bayard Rustin, organized the event. The leading civil rights organizations were co-sponsors. These included the heads of the NAACP (Roy Wilkins), SNCC (John Lewis), the National Union League (Whitney Young), and SCLC (King). Also helping to sponsor the effort were important religious and labor leaders.

The marchers included persons from across the country and from overseas, representing all classes, nearly all ages, and most of the religious groups of the country. They also included from 75,000 to 95,000 whites. Their day began at the Washington Monument where they heard well-known black and white entertainers—like folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Odetta—render freedom songs. Then the marchers walked the short distance to the Lincoln Memorial where the main activities of the day were to take place. At the site of the monument to the "Great Emancipator," they were entertained by more freedom music. Most of the program at the Memorial consisted of speeches from celebrities, religious and labor leaders, and the heads of the sponsoring civil rights groups. Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and John Lewis, along with the white representatives of labor (Walter Reuther of the United Auto workers) and of religious organizations (Eugene Carson Blake of the United Council of Churches) urged the nation to fulfill its commitment of equal rights to all Americans.

It was near the end of the program that the assembled thousands and the millions watching on television witnessed what can be described as the most memorable moments of the day. Mahalia Jackson, renowned Gospel singer, performed almost at the program's conclusion. Her song "Move on Up a Little Higher" seemed to reinvigorate the physically tired marchers who had endured the events of a day in the sweltering heat. The highlight of the march was the last event on the day's agenda. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful and impassioned speech which would echo in the marcher's minds and souls, and in the souls of millions of others, for years to come. His "I Have a Dream" speech embodied the faith of nearly all African Americans and of freedom-loving whites.

King's "words were a magnet for the tens of thousands of shattered black aspirations and guilt ridden white desires for fellowship." It gave the marchers the kind of emotional exuberance and spiritual strength to return to their communities better equipped to confront racial injustice. In less than a month, on September 15, when four black girls would be killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, King's message of hope and expectation for justice would be sorely needed.

The March on Washington was one of the most successful events in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In bringing thousands of whites and blacks together in peaceful protest it indicated that the demand for equal justice for African Americans was an expression of the desires of a large segment of the American public. It called attention to President Kennedy's civil rights bill pending in Congress and "it brought America face to face with its responsibilities as a nation." More than anything else, it gave blacks an opportunity to say to America and to the world that they would no longer accept racial subjugation without active protest.