King's legacy: Remembering the March on Washington
In the spring of 1963, leaders from the major national civil rights organizations in the United States proposed a massive nonviolent demonstration for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., the largest the capital had ever seen. The organizers called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and set a date, August 28, 1963, for the event.
The idea of a major demonstration in Washington, in the nations 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, curator of political history at the Smithsonians National Museum of American History. No protests at that scale had ever taken place in the U.S. before.
That summer day, the crowd of at least 250,000 -- at that time the largest gathering of its kind in the nations capital -- gathered at the Washington Monument, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other musicians performed for the growing crowd. The crowd was just enormous, says Ken Howard in an interview with Smithsonian magazine, a D.C. student at Howard University who took the bus downtown to join the massive gathering. 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.
Behind the scenes was a logistical campaign unprecedented in American activism: Volunteers prepared 80,000 50-cent boxed lunches (consisting of a cheese sandwich, a slice of poundcake and an apple). More than 2,200 chartered buses, 40 special trains, 22 first-aid stations, eight 2,500-gallon water-storage tank trucks and 21 portable water fountains were brought in for the March.
Participants traveled from across the countryyoung and old, black and white, celebrities and ordinary citizens. These included present-day civil rights leaders such as John Lewis, Julian Bond, Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Andrew Young.
The march participants proudly picketed down Washington, DCs Independence and Constitution Avenues to the Lincoln Memorial. The potent symbolism of a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorialtimed to coincide with the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation and following President John F. Kennedys announcement in June that he would submit a civil rights bill to Congresstransfixed the nation.
Fourteen speakers, representing civil rights organizations, labor unions, and religions, took to the podium. The messages built one upon another in a powerful crescendo, until the then 34-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous I Have a Dream speech, which catapulted King into a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement and as one of the nations most famous orators.
After the program, the marchers proceeded to the White House, where they met with President Kennedy and entreated him to improve the civil rights legislation he was submitting to Congress.
The voices of the people in the March on Washington proved to be a strong catalyst in passing the Civil Rights bills in law. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, which legally banned any segregation in public facilities and employment and voting discrimination. Its difficult for someone these days, says Howard, to understand what it was like, to suddenly have a ray of light in the dark. Thats really what it was like.
Critical thinking challenge: Why do you think the March on Washington had such an impact on people?