King's legacy: Remembering the March on Washington
It was spring of 1963. Leaders from the major United States civil rights organizations proposed a huge nonviolent demonstration for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. It would be the largest the capital had ever seen. They called it the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." They set August 28, 1963 as the date.
"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. Rubenstein was a curator at the Smithsonians National Museum of American History. No protests that large had ever taken place in the U.S. before.
That summer day, a crowd of at least 250,000 gathered at the Washington Monument. No gathering that large had been held Washington, D.C. before. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other musicians performed for the crowd. Ken Howard, a student at Howard University, took the bus downtown 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."
Never had American activists planned so carefully behind the scenes. 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, and 22 first-aid stations were brought in. So were eight 2,500-gallon water-storage tank trucks and 21 portable water fountains
Young and old, black and white, celebrities and ordinary citizens traveled from across the country. Some participants are still civil rights leaders today. They include John Lewis, Julian Bond, Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Andrew Young.
The marchers proudly picketed down Washington, DCs Independence and Constitution Avenues to the Lincoln Memorial. The symbolism of a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial was potent. It was timed to happen 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It also followed President John F. Kennedys 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. From the podium, 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 catapulted King into a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement. It made him one of the nations most famous orators.
After the program, the marchers proceeded to the White House. There they met with President Kennedy. They entreated him to improve the civil rights legislation he was submitting to Congress.
The March on Washington proved to be a strong catalyst in passing the Civil Rights bills. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which legally banned employment discrimination and segregation in public facilities. He signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. "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?