The event focused on employment discrimination, civil rights abuses against African Americans, Latinos, and other disenfranchised groups, and support for the Civil Rights Act that the Kennedy Administration was attempting to pass through Congress. This momentous display of civic activism took place on the National Mall, "America's Front Yard" and was the culmination of an idea born more than 20 years before.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
It was the largest gathering for civil rights of its time. An estimated 250,000 people attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, arriving in Washington, D.C. by planes, trains, cars, and buses from all over the country.
March on Washington Intro
Organizing the March
By the 1960s, a public expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo was considered necessary and a march was planned for 1963, with Randolph as the titular head. Joining Randolph in sponsoring the March were the leaders of the five major civil rights groups: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Whitney Young of the National Urban League (NUL), Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), James Farmer of Congress On Racial Equality, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These "Big Six," as they were called, expanded to include Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW),Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), Eugene Carson Blake of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, and Matthew Ahmann of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. In addition, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women participated in the planning, but she operated in the background of this male dominated, leadership group.
The March was organized in less than 3 months. Randolph handed the day-to-day planning to his partner in the March on Washington Movement, Bayard Rustin, a pioneer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and a brilliant strategist of nonviolent direct action protests. Rustin planned everything, from training "marshals" for crowd control using nonviolent techniques to the sound system and setup of porta-potties. There was also an Organizing Manual that laid out a statement of purpose, specific talking points, and logistics. Rustin saw that to maintain order over such a large crowd, there needed to be a highly organized support structure.
A Powerful, Peaceful Protest
With that many people converging on the city, there were concerns about violence. The Washington, D.C. police force mobilized 5,900 officers for the march and the government mustered 6,000 soldiers and National Guardsmen as additional protection. President Kennedy thought that if there were any problems, the negative perceptions could undo the civil rights bill making its way through Congress. In the end, the crowds were calm and there were no incidents reported by police.
While the March was a peaceful occasion, the words spoken that day at the Lincoln Memorial were not just uplifting and inspirational such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"speech, they were also penetrating and pointed. There was a list of "Ten Demands" from the sponsors, insisting on a fair living wage, fair employment policies, and desegregation of school districts. John Lewis in his speech said that "we do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now" and that Congress needed to pass "meaningful legislation" or people would march through the South. Although the SNCC chairman had toned down his remarks at the request of white liberals and moderate black allies, he still managed to criticize both political parties for moving too slowly on civil rights. Others such as Whitney Young and Joachim Prinz spoke of the need for justice, for equal opportunity, for full access to the American Dream promised with the Declaration of Independence and reaffirmed with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. They spoke of jobs, and of a life free from the indifference of lawmakers to people's plights.