The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the March on Washington, or The Great March on Washingto
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the March on Washington, or The Great March on Washington, was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history and demanded civil and economic rights for African Americans. It took place in Washington, D.C. Thousands of Americans headed to Washington on Tuesday, August 27, 1963. On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in which he called for an end to racism.
The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who built an alliance of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations that came together under the banner of "jobs and freedom". Estimates of the number of participants varied from 200,000 to 300,000; the most widely cited estimate is 250,000 people. Observers estimated that 75–80% of the marchers were black.
The march is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and preceded the Selma Voting Rights Movement which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Although African Americans had been legally freed from slavery, elevated to the status of citizens and the men given full voting rights at the end of the American Civil War, many continued to face economic and political repression.
A system of legal discrimination, known as Jim Crow laws, were pervasive in the American South, ensuring that Black Americans remained oppressed. They experienced discrimination from businesses and governments, and in some places were prevented from voting through intimidation and violence. Twenty-one states prohibited interracial marriage.
The impetus for a march on Washington developed over a long period of time, and earlier efforts to organize such a demonstration included the March on Washington Movement of the 1940s. A. Philip Randolph—the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO—was a key instigator in 1941. With Bayard Rustin, Randolph called for 100,000 black workers to march on Washington,in protest of discriminatory hiring by U.S. military contractors and demanding an Executive Order. Faced with a mass march scheduled for July 1, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25. The order established the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and banning discriminatory hiring in the defense industry. Randolph called off the March.
Randolph and Rustin continued to organize around the idea of a mass march on Washington. They envisioned several large marches during the 1940s, but all were called off.
Their Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held at the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957, featured key leaders including Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins. Mahalia Jackson performed.
The 1963 march was an important part of the rapidly expanding Civil Rights Movement, which involved demonstrations and nonviolent direct action across the United States. 1963 also marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. Members of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their differences and came together for the march. Many whites and blacks also came together in the urgency for change in the nation.
Many people wanted to march on Washington, but disagreed over how the march should be conducted
They envisioned two days of protest, including sit-ins and lobbying followed by a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial
Violent confrontations broke out in the South: in Cambridge, Maryland; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Goldsboro, North Carolina; Somerville, Tennessee; Saint Augustine, Florida; and across Mississippi. Most of these incidents involved white people retaliating against nonviolent demonstrators. Many people wanted to march on Washington, but disagreed over how the march should be conducted. Some called for a complete shutdown of the city through civil disobedience. Others argued that the movement should remain nationwide in scope, rather than focus its energies on the capitol.
There was widespread perception that the Kennedy administration had not lived up to its promises in the 1960 election; King described Kennedy's race policy as "tokenism".
The public failure of the Baldwin–Kennedy meeting on May 24, 1963, underscored the divide between the needs of Black America and the understanding of Washington politicians. But it also provoked the Kennedys to action on the civil rights issue. On June 11, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio, announcing that he would begin to push for civil rights legislation—the law which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That night, Mississippi activist Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway, further escalating national tension around the issue of racial equality.
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning the march in December 1962. They envisioned two days of protest, including sit-ins and lobbying followed by a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial. They wanted to focus on joblessness and to call for a public works program that would employ blacks. In early 1963 they called publicly for "a massive March on Washington for jobs". They received help from Amalgamated Clothing Workers unionist Stanley Aronowitz, who gathered support from radical organizers who could be trusted not to report their plans to the Kennedy administration. The unionists offered tentative support for a march that would be focused on jobs.
On May 15, 1963, without securing the cooperation of the NAACP or the Urban League, Randolph announced an "October Emancipation March on Washington for Jobs". He reached out to union leaders, winning the support of the UAW's Walter Reuther, but not of AFL–CIO president George Meany. Randolph and Rustin intended to focus the March on economic inequality, stating in their original plan that “integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists.” As they negotiated with other leaders, they expanded their stated objectives to "Jobs and Freedom" to acknowledge the agenda of groups that focused more on civil rights.
In June 1963, leaders from several different organizations formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, an umbrella group which would coordinate funds and messaging. This coalition of leaders, who became known as the "Big Six", included: Randolph who was chosen as the titular head of the march, James Farmer (president of the Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Martin Luther King, Jr. (president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP), and Whitney Young (president of the National Urban League). King in particular had become well known for his role in the Birmingham campaign and for his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Wilkins and Young initially objected to Rustin as a leader for the march, because he was a homosexual, a former Communist, and a draft resistor. They eventually accepted Rustin as deputy organizer, on the condition that Randolph act as lead organizer and manage any political fallout.
On June 22, Big Six met with President Kennedy, who warned against creating "an atmosphere of intimidation" by bringing a large crowd to Washington.
The civil rights activists insisted on holding the march. Wilkins pushed for the organizers to rule out civil disobedience and described this proposal as the "perfect compromise". King and Young agreed. Leaders from CORE and SNCC, who wanted to conduct direct actions against the Department of Justice, endorsed the protest before they were informed that civil disobedience would not be allowed. Finalized plans for the March were announced in a press conference on July 2. President Kennedy spoke favorably of the March on July 17, saying that organizers planned a peaceful assembly and had cooperated with the Washington, D.C., police.
Mobilization and logistics were administered by Rustin, a civil rights veteran and organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was a long-time associate of both Randolph and Dr. King.
With Randolph concentrating on building the march's political coalition, Rustin built and led the team of two hundred activists and organizers who publicized the march and recruited the marchers, coordinated the buses and trains, provided the marshals, and set up and administered all of the logistic details of a mass march in the nation's capital. During the days leading up to the march, these 200 volunteers used the ballroom of Washington DC radio station WUST as their operations headquarters.
The march was not universally supported among civil rights activists. Some, including Rustin (who assembled 4,000 volunteer marshals from New York), were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement. The march was condemned by Malcolm X, spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who termed it the "farce on Washington".
March organizers themselves disagreed over the purpose of the march. The NAACP and Urban League saw it as a gesture of support for a civil rights bill that had been introduced by the Kennedy Administration. Randolph, King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw it as a way of raising both civil rights and economic issues to national attention beyond the Kennedy bill. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality(CORE) saw it as a way of challenging and condemning the Kennedy administration's inaction and lack of support for civil rights for African Americans.
Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.
Although in years past, Randolph had supported "Negro only" marches, partly to reduce the impression that the civil rights movement was dominated by white communists, organizers in 1963 agreed that whites and blacks marching side by side would create a more powerful image.
The Kennedy Administration cooperated with the organizers in planning the March, and one member of the Justice Department was assigned as a full-time liaison. Chicago and New York City (as well as some corporations) agreed to designate August 28 as "Freedom Day" and give workers the day off.
To avoid being perceived as radical, organizers rejected support from Communist groups. However, some politicians claimed that the March was Communist-inspired, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation produced numerous reports suggesting the same. In the days before August 28, the FBI called celebrity backers to inform them of the organizers' communist connections and advising them to withdraw their support. When William C. Sullivan produced a lengthy report on August 23 suggesting that Communists had failed to appreciably infiltrate the civil rights movement, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover rejected its contents. Strom Thurmond launched a prominent public attack on the March as Communist, and singled out Rustin in particular as a Communist and a gay man.
Organizers worked out of a building at West 130th St. and Lenox in Harlem. They promoted the march by selling buttons, featuring two hands shaking, the words "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", a union bug, and the date August 28, 1963. By August 2, they had distributed 42,000 of the buttons. Their goal was a crowd of at least 100,000 people.
As the march was being planned, activists across the country received bomb threats at their homes and in their offices. The Los Angeles Times received a message saying its headquarters would be bombed unless it printed a message calling the president a "Nigger Lover". Five airplanes were grounded on the morning of August 28 due to bomb threats. A man in Kansas City telephoned the FBI to say he would put a hole between King's eyes; the FBI did not respond. Roy Wilkins was threatened with assassination if he did not leave the country.