March History

 

The 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. Originally intended to be called the March in Washington to avoid any perceptions of a violent demonstration; 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 30 years before to protest discrimination and segregation.

Origins of the March

While the March was a collaborative effort, sponsored by leaders of various student, civil rights, and labor organizations, the original idea came from A. Philip Randolph, a labor organizer and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council (NALC). His vision for a march on the Nation's Capital dated back to the March on Washington Movement of the 1940s, when he had twice proposed large scale marches to protest segregation and discrimination in the U.S. military and the U.S. defense industry, and to pressure the White House to take action. Both times the marches were cancelled, once when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 (Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry, 1941) and the second time when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 (Desegregation of the Armed Forces, 1948).

Randolph had kept the idea of a march alive over the years and served as the titular head of the 1963 March on Washington. 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 Council (SCLC), James Farmer of Congress On Racial Equality, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The "Big Six," as they were called, expanded—both numerically and financially—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.

Women, though absent of publicity and official positions, formed the backbone of the Freedom Movement. Singers Marian Anderson, Eva Jessye, Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, and Joan Baez performed their inspiring music. Groundbreaking leaders such as Ella Baker and Dorothy Height were present at the podium. Anna Hedgeman and other women were leading organizers on the March staff and ensured that Daisy Bates acknowledged her fellow Civil Rights activists Myrlie Evers, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Mrs. Herbert Lee, Rosa Parks and Gloria Richardson from the platform.

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.

With so many organizations having a vested interest in the successful outcome of the March eventually a set of 10 demands were agreed upon:

The 10 Demands of the March on Washington

1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans:

Access to all public accommodations

Decent housing

Adequate and integrated education

The right to vote

2. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.

3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.

4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised.

5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.

6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any Constitutional right is violated.

7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.

8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)

[The minimum wage at the time of the march was $1.15/hour.]

9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.

10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

Opposition to the March

While well intentioned, the idea of a massive march and human petition on the nation's capital created unsettling thoughts and expectations for its ultimate outcome. President Kennedy originally discouraged the March for fear that it might make the legislature vote against civil rights laws in reaction to a perceived threat. However once it became clear that the march would go on, he supported it. Though President Kennedy publicly supported the march, behind the scenes his administration moved to limit and control it. To reduce the numbers of who could participate they demanded that it be held on a weekday — a working day — rather than on that weekend. In addition, all marchers were to arrive in the morning and be gone from the city by dark. Politically, they wanted to prevent any placards or banners critical of the administration — only officially approved signs could be carried. All organizations would comply with these directives.

While various labor unions supported the march, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), a national trade union center remained neutral.

Outright opposition came from two sides. Supremacist groups were not in favor of any event supporting racial equality. On the other hand, the march was also condemned by some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington" sharing, "The very fact that millions, black and white, believed in this monumental farce is another example of how much this country goes in for the surface glossing over, the escape ruse, surfaces, instead of truly dealing with its deep-rooted problems."

Dorothy Height would share during the civil rights movement, "Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals." Therefore, great opposition set the stage for immeasurable opportunity through the outcomes of the March on Washington in 1963.

Outcome of the March

Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, there had not been an effective piece of race-related civil rights legislation signed into law. However, in the two years following the March on Washington, the two most effective civil rights bills ever enacted, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. In addition, most participants experience excitement and empowerment being part of something larger than themselves. For most, the commitment and discipline, unity and camaraderie, of the March was an awakening and for some a life-altering epiphany that moved them into social reform for the years and decades following.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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