The March on Washington was a political rally held on Wednesday, August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. calling for action on issues affecting African-Americans. Formally labeled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the event is remembered primarily because of the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. That speech, along with the timing of the rally – in the middle of the most tumultuous period of the Civil Rights Movement – contributed to the undeniable success of the event.
The march itself was actually only a short walk, as the demonstration started at the Washington Monument and moved to the Lincoln Memorial. There, under the gaze of the president credited with liberating the slaves 100 years earlier (in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863), an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people listened to speeches, prayers, and songs.
A wide range of presenters was gathered by the architects of the event, veteran African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph and brilliant Civil Rights Movement strategist Bayard Rustin. There were movement leaders (King, John Lewis, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young), mainstream religious and labor leaders, and entertainers (Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the trio Peter, Paul and Mary).
One of the objectives of the rally was to offer support for a civil rights bill drafted by the administration of John F. Kennedy (who would be assassinated less then three months later) that was then before Congress. That bill ultimately passed and was enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet the success of the event cannot be measured merely by this legislative victory. The March on Washington was the moment when the African-American demand for first-class citizenship was placed clearly and loudly before the American public.
That demand was expressed most eloquently by Martin Luther King in a speech that is considered one of the finest in American history. In his speech, King made reference to several key touchstones of American culture and tradition – the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. He used his considerable rhetorical skill to explain how all these texts supported the equality of every citizen. King concluded by talking about his hopes for his children and for all Americans, using the powerful refrain “I have a dream.”
*Audio of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech
King’s speech was just one of many delivered that day, yet it is the moment that most people remember. It was both a short course in American history and an impassioned plea for equality, and its reverberations were felt for years afterward.
The March on Washington was widely covered by the media, and the event was almost universally lauded by commentators and observers. (One dissenting voice was that of Nation of Islam spokesperson Malcolm X, who called it “the farce on Washington.”)
It was a triumph both in the unity it demonstrated – of African-American leaders together with mainstream religious and labor leaders – and in the effects it engendered, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By John Dunnery