March on Washington 1963
“We shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours. We shall settle for nothing else.”
A. Philip Randolph, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not the first march proposed by organizer A. Philip Randolph, union president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He called for a 1941 march for equality in federal jobs, which pushed President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 and the march was canceled. Randolph proposed a 1948 march for desegregation of the armed forces, which was called off when President Truman integrated the troops with Executive Order 9981. On October 25, 1958, 10,000 participants gathered for the Youth March for Integrated Schools. 26,000 participated in the second school march on April 18, 1959.
Mr. Randolph pressed for a 1963 march because President John Kennedy’s civil rights bill did not contain fair employment language and he considered it too weak to be effective. His March for Jobs joined forces with the March for Freedom proposed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was scheduled for August of 1963 to put pressure on Congress as they debated the bill. President Kennedy met with the Big Six of the civil rights movement and requested that the march be canceled because he thought it would do more harm than good, but the request was denied. The Big Six became the Big Ten as organizers reached out to white religious and union leaders to expand participation.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy insisted that the march be held on a weekday to prevent crowds from causing trouble over a weekend, permits only allowed marchers from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and they had to leave the city by 5 p.m. Security forces were activated and federal offices were shut down for the day. Civil rights activist Dick Gregory predicted a peaceful day, stating “I know the senators and congressmen are scared of what’s going to happen. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a great big Sunday picnic.” His words proved accurate as around 250,000 people of all races and creeds, dressed in their Sunday best, peacefully marched on August 28, 1963.
A. Philip Randolph was the director of the march and Bayard Rustin organized the event in less than 2 months with the help of 200 volunteers. He planned the route, arranged transportation and sanitation, printed brochures, raised funds, and sent out organizers nationwide to get church and community groups behind the march. Volunteers prepared 80,000 box lunches and 500 volunteers stayed just to clean up afterwards.
Marchers arrived on foot, by train, airplane, bus, car, bicycle and even roller skates. They were shuttled to the Washington Monument and they marched from there to the Lincoln Memorial. The Big Ten met with members of Congress in the morning to promote passage of the civil rights bill. They were to lead the march after visiting Congress, but thousands had already started on their way. There were songs and speeches by celebrities and the Big Ten were each given 7 minutes to speak. Josephine Baker and Daisy Bates were the only women speakers. The last on the podium, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was following his prepared speech when Mahalia Jackson said during a pause, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. The dream.” Using parts from previous speeches, he improvised the end of his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As the marchers departed, the Big Ten met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, President Johnson led the fight to pass the civil rights bill, which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed.
The Commitment March on Washington was held on the March on Washington’s anniversary, August 28, 2020, as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The demands for racial equality and a fair criminal justice system reflected the themes of the 1963 march and show that, as we have over the years, Americans will keep marching on Washington until “total freedom is ours.”
For more information, check out Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington by Kitty Kelley and other books and DVDs in our collection. This topic may be researched further using our History Reference Center database and our Hoopla and Libby apps.