On Aug. 28, 1963, more than a quarter million people walked in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the same march that saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Now, 60 years later, the march is being recreated as advocates highlight the fight still ahead for equality.
The 1963 march helped lead to a host of new laws, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark legislation banned segregation in public places and prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
But the fight for those rights was hard won. Despite President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans had been forced to live a life of second-class citizenship for decades. They were also constantly terrorized and brutalized by white Americans.
Those who fought for their freedoms were arrested, beaten and threatened, while others — like Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and, of course, King — were assassinated.
But the March on Washington became a newfound moment in the push for equality. With 250,000 people from all over the country flooding the streets of Washington, the march was the largest gathering for civil rights at the time.
Though attendees did march through the streets of the capital, they also gathered in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial — for a very specific reason, which King addressed in his speech but is often overlooked, the Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill.
“If you look at the speech, [King] said … Mr. Lincoln, you signed the Emancipation Proclamation, you promised that we’d have equality, you promised freedom. Washington didn’t make that promise, Jefferson didn’t make that promise,” Sharpton said. “He said that America has given us a promissory note that has bounced in the bank of justice. We are living in a time where we’re asking America to live up to your promise. And we leave that out because to talk about that part of the speech, the bounced check, the unfulfilled promissory note, is to then have to deal with policy rather than poetry.”
While many credit King for organizing the march, it was actually the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council.
Randolph was a known organizer, having pushed the White House to desegregate the defense industry throughout the 1940s under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.
For the March on Washington, Randolph was joined by organizer Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a close adviser to King, and Randolph would eventually christen him “Mr. March-on-Washington.”
Joining the planning of the march was a group of coalitions that became known as “the Big Six”: Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress On Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
More groups would join the Big Six, including the American Jewish Congress and the National Council of Negro Women, as planning continued.
With the sheer number of people involved, the march came together in only three months.
Courtland Cox, chairman of the SNCC Legacy Project, was one of the organizers of the March on Washington. Cox remembers waking up on the day of the march and walking with Rustin toward the memorial. At the time, they were concerned by the lack of people. Turns out, no one was in the streets yet because they were still on the roads.
“The problem was so many people coming in at the same time, the highways were clogged up, nobody could get into town,” Cox said.
It shouldn’t have been surprising. Though Cox, who had been in charge of transportation, had had the idea of a “Freedom Train” to bring people into the city, he said the railroads did not want to help. Instead, they hired buses to bring people to D.C., even though many of those coming up were from the South.
“It was very dangerous traveling on the roads in the South,” Cox said, adding that in some states it was illegal for Black people to drive.
Other notable civil rights activists besides King spoke at the march, including John Lewis, who would go on to serve in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years.
At only 23, Lewis spoke on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His speech, laced with anger and frustration, targeted Dixiecrats and the Kennedy administration, which he said put forth a civil rights bill “too little and too late.”
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!” Lewis said. “We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”
Predictably, the march sparked backlash.
One of the most devastating acts of violence occurred on Sept. 15, 1963, just two weeks after the march, when white supremacists planted a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The explosion killed four young girls who were at Sunday school.
Today, Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., said he is disappointed with how progress has stalled since his father’s iconic speech.
“I would have hoped we were further along than we are, which does not mean that we’ve not seen some progress over 60 years in relationship to the vision that my father enumerated of freedom and justice and equality for all humankind,” King told The Hill.
King isn’t alone in his frustrations. Advocates and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed growing concern over a host of legislation and rhetoric they say harm Black Americans.
The caucus last month pointed to the GOP-led state legislature in Alabama defying a Supreme Court order to create a second majority-Black congressional district. They’ve highlighted the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action, and most recently, new education guidelines in Florida that require students be told that enslaved people benefited from slavery.
These laws, they say, have an undeniable and disproportionate impact on Black Americans.
“I think so much about when I see them try to remove Black history, LGBT discussions, women’s history, it’s almost like, if we shut this down, people will not understand why we need to continue to make progress,” Sharpton said. “We don’t only need Black history for Black young kids; white kids need to understand what happened and therefore we need to do these things now.”
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said that now is a dangerous time for many, particularly Black Americans, as this new legislation is rolled out. Not only have schools been targeted, but so have voting rights, he said, and many of these laws seem to be trying to “move us back to 1950s reality.”
But people shouldn’t forget that the original March on Washington brought about Freedom Summer, Johnson said.
Freedom Summer was a project by SNCC that saw members head to rural Mississippi in 1964, where they helped register Black voters, teach literacy and civics and support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the all-white Democratic delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.
“Because of Freedom Summer, you get the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” said Johnson. “Because of Freedom Summer, you have the concept of community health centers all across the country now. Because of Freedom Summer, we recognize that the movement must be community-centric, not egocentric. It is never about the one person or the one speech. It’s about the collective whole, putting in the work to ensure that equal protection under the law is afforded to everyone.”
Johnson says the March on Washington was an important moment in our nation’s history — but it wasn’t the end in the fight for civil rights.
Sixty years later, the march will be recreated on Aug. 26 by a host of organizations, including the NAACP, the Drum Major Institute run by King and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and Sharpton’s National Action Network.
“My mother used to say, freedom has never been permanently given. Every generation must earn and actually move the pendulum forward,” said Martin Luther King III. “Dad used to say, we must learn non-violence or we may face nonexistence. None of us want to get to that point. But we’re at a critical point now, where maybe people will say you know what, there’s a better way for us as human beings to coexist at a much higher level.”