King's legacy: Remembering the March on Washington
It was spring of 1963. Leaders from United States civil rights organizations proposed a huge nonviolent Civil Right demonstration in Washington, D.C. They called it the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." August 28, 1963 would be the date.
"The idea of a major demonstration in Washington, in the nation's capital, that brought together all of the major civil rights organizations would be a statement very different from what was happening around the country," says Harry Rubenstein. Rubenstein was a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. No protests in the U.S. had been so large before.
The day arrived. At least 250,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument. It was the largest gathering in the capital so far. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other musicians performed. Ken Howard took the bus to join the gathering. "The crowd was just enormous," he told Smithsonian magazine. "Kind of like the feeling you get when a thunderstorm is coming and you know it is going to really happen. There was an expectation and excitement that this march finally would make a difference."
It was the first time American activists planned so carefully. Volunteers prepared 80,000 50-cent boxed lunches. More than 2,200 buses, 40 special trains, and 22 first-aid stations were brought in. So were eight huge water-storage trucks and 21 portable water fountains.
Participants traveled across the country. They were young and old, black and white, celebrities and ordinary citizens. Some are still civil rights leaders today. These include John Lewis, Julian Bond, Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Andrew Young.
Participants marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial was a powerful symbol. It was timed to happen 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It also followed President John F. Kennedy's announcement that he would submit a civil rights bill to Congress. It transfixed the nation.
Fourteen speakers represented civil rights organizations, labor unions, and religions. Their messages built one upon another in a powerful crescendo. Then 34-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech. It made King a major Civil Rights leader. He became one of the nation's most famous orators.
After the program, the marchers proceeded to the White House. There they met with President Kennedy. They begged him to improve his proposed civil rights legislation.
The March on Washington helped the Civil Rights bills to pass. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It banned employment discrimination and segregation in public places. He signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. "It's difficult for someone these days," says Howard, "to understand what it was like, to suddenly have a ray of light in the dark. That's really what it was like."
Critical thinking challenge: Why do you think the March on Washington had such an impact on people?