On Aug. 28, 1963, about 250,000 people participated in the high-stakes March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Originated by A. Philip Randolph, and sponsored by five of the largest civil rights organizations in the country, the march was designed to pressure the Kennedy administration into pushing for a strong civil rights bill that would end brutal segregation and the denial of black voting rights in the South. Today, the march is synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here, historian Barbara Ransby explores some of the lesser-discussed contours of the most famous mass march in United States history.
Women in the Movement
Even though veteran activists like Ella Baker, Septima Clark and Rosa Parks were not on the speakers platform at the historic march—in fact, no women were on the speakers list*—more than 100,000 women were among the marchers on that hot August day in 1963. More importantly, women such as Freedom Rides coordinator Diane Nash and Mississippi sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer were some of the most eloquent spokespersons for the growing Southern-based Black Freedom Movement. Their courageous leadership, albeit often not fully recognized among the pantheon of male civil rights leaders, was a critical force. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
Labor and the March
The March on Washington is remembered as a “civil rights” event calling for desegregation and citizenship rights, but it was also a labor march. Detroit, the heart of the auto industry and headquarters of the UAW, was the center of a growing black working class in 1963. The union leadership had taken a stance in support of civil rights and linked the movement to labor’s demand for jobs, improved wages and better working conditions. This sign, “No Halfway House on the Road to Freedom,” points to the broad platform of goals and demands that the March on Washington coalition had agreed upon. But the inclusion of organized labor also involved tensions and negotiations. UAW head Walter Reuther was said to have been displeased with the text of John Lewis’ speech because it castigated the Kennedy administration, which the union strongly supported. Others also thought Lewis was too confrontational and he was pressed to tone his words down before delivering the actual speech.(Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)
Missing from the March
Even though people made sacrifices to attend the March on Washington and the long bus rides and sweltering heat required stamina to withstand, it was by no means the frontline of the growing struggle. Young activists like George Raymond (pictured above), a freedom rider, were arrested and jailed for their protest activities. Many courageous young activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were in jail in places like Albany, Ga., and Danville, Va., while others waved to celebrity marchers, smiled for newspaper photographers and dangled tired feet in the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument. (Photo: Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
A Call for Peace
Most of the marchers held pre-printed signs with specific slogans, demands and messages approved by the march organizers. But some brought their own, like this peace sign pictured. In 1963 the country was already laying the groundwork for a major escalation in Vietnam. Ground troops would be on Vietnamese soil within two years’ time. Some saw the writing on the wall and sought to link the nascent peace movement to the growing civil rights struggle. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
This young woman’s face: serious, innocent but determined was reflective of the new youth leadership that was asserting itself on the front lines of the movement in 1963. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in April 1960 under the mentorship of Ella Baker as an outgrowth of the desegregation sit-in movement that had swept the South. Its members were college students in their late teens and early 20s eager to engage in direct action to end segregation and combat racism. John Lewis, 23 years old at the time and the newly elected head of SNCC, was the youngest speaker on the podium. Instead of “negroes,” Lewis talked of the “black masses,” and instead of integration, he focused on the “social revolution” that was underway. By 1963 even younger children were directly a part of the struggle, as protesters, organizers and victims. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
Multi-racial unity was one of the major visual themes of the 1963 march. Images of black and white marchers striding arm in arm or holding hands dominated the the news media. But the 1966 demand for “Black Power” was just around the corner. In discussions and debates about the Freedom Summer voting rights campaigns that would be launched the following year, the role of whites in a struggle that focused on black freedom was already a hot topic. Organizers in SNCC and the newly formed Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) wrestled with the importance of non-white allies versus the need for African American self-determination and leadership around issues that primarily impacted African Americans. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Violence Before the March
If the August march in the nation’s capitol was a high point for the civil rights movement in 1963, the cold-blooded assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi two months earlier was a low point. Evers was shot dead with the rifle shown above by avowed white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, who was acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury in 1964 but was finally convicted 30 years later. King and many of his followers advocated tactical, if not philosophical nonviolence but the other side did not adhere to such lofty ideals. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
The King’s Speech
The March on Washington is perhaps best known as the site at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A grand orator, whose greatness rested on the solid organizing efforts of thousands of local people, the August 1963 speech was powerful, but other speeches and writings offer a slightly different and deeper set of politics.
Earlier that year, for example, King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he rejected gradualism and, echoing the militancy of Frederick Douglass, argued that, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In his speech “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” he indicted the very ideals of capitalism. In his words: “There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”
So as thousands come out to celebrate King on the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech, let’s remember the other words he uttered and the other people who amplified and echoed those words in a sustained and difficult movement, during violent and difficult times. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
*Post has been updated since publication.