The 1963 March on Washington

 

“[The March on Washington] has focused the attention of the country on the problems of human dignity and freedom for Negroes. It has reached the heart, mind, and conscience of America.”

— A. Philip Randolph

Natalie Lloyd, Wynell Schamel, and Lee Ann Potter

On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Not only was it the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history, but it also occasioned a rare display of unity among the various civil rights organizations. The event began with a rally at the Washington Monument featuring several celebrities and musicians. Participants then marched the mile-long Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. The three-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial included speeches from prominent civil rights and religious leaders. The day ended with a meeting between March leaders and President John F. Kennedy at the White House.

The idea for the 1963 March on Washington was conceived by A. Philip Randolph, a long-time civil rights activist dedicated to improving the economic condition of black Americans. Randolph had a history of fighting and winning major battles against racial discrimination. In the 1920s, he became involved in the labor movement and was asked to organize a union for the black Pullman Sleeping Car employees. As founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), Randolph negotiated a labor contract with the Pullman Company and gained admittance for the black union into the all-white American Federation of Labor (AFL).

In 1941, Randolph planned a mass protest in Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end racial discrimination in the defense industry. When FDR issued Executive Order 8802, thereby establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, Randolph called off the march. Several years later, Randolph played a part in convincing another president, Harry S. Truman, to ban segregation in the military services. Despite these victories, Randolph knew blacks could not enjoy their new legal freedoms without better employment. He saw the March on Washington as a great opportunity to unify all of the major civil rights organizations and improve black economic opportunities.

When Randolph first proposed the March in late 1962, he received little response from other civil rights leaders. He knew that cooperation would be difficult because each had his own agenda for the Civil Rights Movement, and the leaders competed for funding and press coverage. Success at the March on Washington would depend on the involvement of the so-called “Big Six” (Randolph himself plus the heads of the five major civil rights organizations: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); James Farmer of the Conference of Racial Equality (CORE); and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). More militant or separatist groups such as the Black Muslims were not asked to join the coalition.

Disagreements among the leaders led to problems from the beginning. Both Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were afraid that a protest march would damage the good relations they had built with members of Congress. James Farmer and John Lewis looked forward to direct action in the nation’s capital, using civil disobedience and the nonviolent techniques they had employed in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. Martin Luther King, Jr., was busy campaigning against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, but was considering taking his protest to Washington, D.C. Randolph had the difficult task of bringing these strong-minded individuals together for a team effort. His ability to act as a mediator led one newspaper article to describe him as “unique because he accepts everyone in a movement whose members do not always accept one another.” Under Randolph’s influence, the March on Washington became the single event to unify all civil rights organizations. Before and after the March, these organizations chose to work on their own, using their own methods and focusing on the aspect of civil rights that most interested them.

The “Big Six” eventually expanded into the “Top Ten” as important white religious and labor leaders were asked to participate. The four additional men were Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, vice chairman of the Commission on Race Relations of the National Council of Churches of Christ in America; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers.

President John F. Kennedy was initially opposed to the March and tried to dissuade prominent civil rights leaders from participating. He was concerned that it might lead to rioting and violence that could jeopardize his civil rights legislation from gaining the votes it needed to pass Congress. On June 22, 1963, Kennedy met with major civil rights and labor leaders to ask them to cancel the March. His statement, “We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol,” let them know where his priorities were. However, Randolph insisted that the March would take place, and Martin Luther King noted that a peaceful march would draw attention to the civil rights issue in a positive way. Once Kennedy realized that the leaders would not back down, he threw his support behind the March and tried to ensure that the event would be peaceful.

The details and organization were handled by Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph’s trusted associate, who was named deputy director of the March on Washington. Rustin was a veteran activist with extensive experience in putting together mass protests. For both Rustin and Randolph, the March on Washington would be the high point of their civil rights careers. With only two months to plan the march, Rustin established his headquarters in Harlem, New York, with a smaller office in Washington. He and his core staff of two hundred volunteers quickly put together the largest peaceful demonstration in U.S. history.

The first item of business was how to inform people of the March and persuade them to join. The Big Six quickly spread the news through press conferences and speeches, while Rustin worked through the civil rights and labor organizations to mail thousands of flyers to churches, fraternal societies, labor unions, civic groups, youth groups, and professional associations. The flyers emphasized the peaceful nature of the March and focused on the unifying goals of the Civil Rights Movement. A list of marchers’ demands included meaningful civil rights laws, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate and integrated education. Soon thousands of people sent letters to the March headquarters expressing their interest.

One of the biggest obstacles to organization was the need for funding. Money was needed for transportation to and from Washington, housing while there, and the printing of instructions and signs for marchers. Rustin estimated that this would cost at least $25,000, but the final sum equalled $120,000. While large organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League gave substantial sums of money, other organizations donated important items such as blankets. Some busing systems provided transportation to the March for free or at a discount. Others let children ride free and only charged the adults. Most individuals financed their own bus trips. Many organized bake sales, receptions, and fashion shows to earn money for the journey. In Cleveland, Ohio, a group of unemployed men sold shares of their $33 bus tickets for $1 to allow each person to represent thirty-three people at the March.

Rustin also concentrated on the basic needs of the marchers and found ways to make everyone comfortable. He and his volunteers arranged for the route along the Mall to be equipped with several thousand portable toilets, twenty-four first-aid stations, twenty-one drinking fountains, and several food stands. The March manual instructed participants to bring two boxed lunches with them for the day-long event. Volunteers at New York’s Riverside Church made 80,000 cheese sandwiches to help feed hungry marchers.

One of the most important issues surrounding the March on Washington was safety. Civil rights leaders wanted a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration that would portray its participants as dignified and respectful. To ensure that the March would go smoothly, Rustin organized his own security force to control the crowd. These 2,000 volunteer marshals were unarmed and worked with the Washington, D.C., police force to keep order. Precautions were also taken throughout the city in preparation for possible riots or acts of looting. Kennedy and military leaders put 4,000 troops on alert, and were ready to call in 15,000 paratroopers to stop any rioting. The city hospitals were also placed on alert, and city judges prepared for the possibility of mass arrests. Even liquor stores banned the sale of alcohol for the day, and the baseball game between the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins was postponed.

As planning for the March moved forward, opposition increased. J. Edgar Hoover, a fervent enemy of civil rights leaders, worked furiously to denounce the March as a Communist plot. In order to discredit civil rights leaders with accusations of Communist infiltration, Hoover ordered wiretaps on the telephones of Martin Luther King and his supporters. Although some civil rights activists, Bayard Rustin for one, had been involved with Communist organizations in the past, Hoover’s accusations were largely unfounded.

Meanwhile, the March was being denounced from another side, as Black Muslim leader Malcolm X called it “The Farce on Washington.” Accusing the Kennedy Administration of controlling the March and the civil rights leaders of following along like “puppets,” Malcolm X went to Washington with the purpose of holding a press conference the night before to dissuade people from participating. His press conference did take place, but it was during the March and did not receive much media coverage. Threats of interference also came from the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Ultimately, none of these groups did serious damage to the March or the enthusiasm of the participants. In fact, only three arrests would be made that day, none involving the marchers.

Rustin and the other civil rights leaders worked diligently to make sure the March’s scheduled activities were followed perfectly. By dawn, several hundred participants had arrived at the Washington Monument, where the morning rally was to take place. While the March leaders met with legislators on Capitol Hill, the rally began at 10 a.m. with songs by Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Hollywood celebrities—including Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Charlton Heston—gave speeches or appeared in support of the March. As the crowd grew, the mood became festive and a few eager individuals started marching before the appointed time. Leaders rushed from the Capitol and linked arms just in time to head the parade toward the Lincoln Memorial. The March itself was respectful, as participants walked with dignity singing the freedom anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

The demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial lasted three hours and was broadcast by media throughout the world. Although the program went smoothly, there were a few last-minute disputes. John Lewis faced objections to the speech he and the members of SNCC had prepared. A copy of his talk had been circulated among the March leaders the night before, and some of them objected to the militant language it contained. The crisis still had not cooled by the time the program started, and Rev. Patrick O’Boyle threatened to walk off the podium if the speech was delivered as written. As last-minute speakers stalled for time, the March leaders argued beneath the Memorial stage. Finally, Lewis agreed to revise the passages offensive to the others.

The other controversy over the program involved the limited participation by women. Several were honored in a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”—for example, Daisy Bates, a journalist and civil rights activist who was currently field director of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. But none was asked to speak, nor had any been included in planning the event. Even the wives of prominent civil rights leaders were asked to march apart from their husbands and were not invited to the White House meeting with the President. Two women, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, did present musical selections.

The program featured speeches from each of the “Top Ten” leaders, although James Farmer of CORE was not present at the demonstration. He was in prison with other CORE members in Louisiana, and refused to be bailed out for the day’s events. Floyd McKissick read Farmer’s speech, which denounced the violence and brutality shown to civil rights demonstrators. The highlight of the program was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which called for the day when all men would be treated equally and freedom would ring from the mountainsides. The March on Washington would be remembered as perhaps the most triumphant moment of the Civil Rights Movement.

The document featured in this article is a letter from A. Philip Randolph to President John F. Kennedy stating the purpose of the March and requesting that he meet with the Top Ten on the morning of August 28th. Kennedy declined this request as well as an invitation to speak at the rally because he knew he could not prepare a speech that would satisfy both the March participants and the nation. He was also worried that photographs and a meeting with the leaders before the March could turn against him if riots occurred or if any of the speakers later denounced him from the platform. Kennedy did, however, invite the March leaders to the White House at 5:00 p.m., thinking it more prudent to meet with them following a peaceful demonstration that supported his civil rights bill.

This document is part of the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Library. A digitized image of the document and other documents concerning Kennedy and civil rights are available online from the JFK Library at www.cs.umb.edu/jfklibrary/civil_rights_documents_index.html. Digitized images of the March participants and events are found at www.nara.gov/nara/nail. To access them, conduct a standard search of digitized items using “civil rights” as the keyword.

 

Teaching Activities

1. Duplicate and distribute the Randolph letter to students and ask them to answer the following questions:

> What type of document is it?

> Who wrote the document?

> To whom was it written?

> What is the purpose of the March it describes?

> What request does the author make of the President?

> When does he ask for a meeting to take place?

> Who is to attend the meeting?

> What is the hoped for outcome of the meeting?

2. Tell students about the events leading up to the March on Washington, emphasizing the roles of A. Philip Randolph and President John F. Kennedy, and including the President’s response to Randolph’s request. Assign students to research Kennedy’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement using their textbooks and the bibliography listed with this article. Lead a class discussion about Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement. Ask students why, based on their research, they think Kennedy responded to Randolph as he did. What kind of leadership do they think Kennedy exerted on this issue?

3. On the chalkboard, compile a list of the sponsors of the March on Washington mentioned in the document. Ask students to choose one of the sponsors and write a short biography of this individual including a description of his participation in the March.

4. Of the ten sponsors of the March on Washington, five were leaders of major civil rights organizations, these being the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, SNCC, and the National Urban League. Divide students into five groups to research the origins and goals of these organizations. Allow time for each group to present its findings to the class. Afterwards, students might debate the effectiveness of different methods of protest used by civil rights groups. Follow up with a discussion about the influence that Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau had on nonviolent protest and the Civil Rights Movement.

5. Ask students to explore the role women played in the March on Washington. (They might begin by examining the March program on page 24.) Assign students to research the women who were included in the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”—Daisy Bates, Diane Nash Bevel, Mrs. Medgar Evers, Mrs. Herbert Lee, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson—and report their findings to the class. Suggest that students try to discover how these women felt about not being included in planning the March or speaking at the rally on the Mall. What effect might this have had on the emergence of the women’s movement? Can students cite evidence to support their speculations?

6. Show the students a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, and ask them why they think it was chosen as the site for the program. If available, share information on the construction, dedication, and uses of the Lincoln Memorial in lessons published in Social Education and compiled in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, pp. 115 and 147, by the National Archives and the National Council for the Social Studies in 1989. Information about this volume is found online at www.nara.gov/education.

7. Play a videotape or sound recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Discuss the speech with students, and ask them to write a short essay about their own dreams for the future of the United States.

8. Ask students what other major protests and demonstrations they can recall throughout U.S. history—for example, women’s suffrage marches, anti-Vietnam protests, Bonus Marchers during the Great Depression, and the Million Man March. Discuss these questions with them:

> Why have some protests been peaceful while others have ended in violence?

> Which ones do you think have been the most successful and why?

> What role do protests and demonstrations play in a democracy?

 

References

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Gentile, Thomas. March on Washington: August 28, 1963. Washington, DC: New Day Publications, Inc., 1983.

Haskins, James. The March on Washington. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Sorensen, Theodore, C. Kennedy. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

 

Wynell Schamel and Lee Ann Potter are education specialists at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Schamel serves as editor for “Teaching With Documents,” a regular department of Social Education.
Natalie Lloyd, a National Archives intern, is a graduate student at Brigham Young University.

 

You may reproduce the documents shown here in any quantity. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the Education Staff at NARA, NWE, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740; 301-713-6274; education@arch1.nara.gov.