This week marks the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The success of this peaceful march, which attracted an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people on August 28, 1963, was the culmination of twenty years of planning and organizing by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
A. Philip Randolph was a tireless organizer and leader who worked for many years to have a mass march in Washington, D.C. Randolph’s dream of a peaceful, mass march to protest segregation began in the 1940s when he was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The plan for the 1941 march called for 100,000 black workers to march on Washington on July 1 to protest discrimination in the armed forces, demanded an end to segregation, and proposed anti-lynching legislation. As with the later march for “Jobs and Freedom,” the first march was planned with an emphasis economic issues and hiring practices of military contractors during the economic war boom.
As the date for the march came closer, a nervous President Roosevelt who feared a race riot would break out asked Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene and convince Randolph to call off the march. Randolph said he would not call off the march. Finally Randolph, President Roosevelt, and the head of the NAACP, Walter White, met to negotiate. The result of this meeting was Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 or the Fair Employment Act on June 25 which prohibited discriminatory hiring practices of military contractors. After this Randolph called off the march, earning criticism from some quarters. It was truly a compromise since the armed forces would not be desegregated until 1948.
It took two more decades for Randolph’s vision to be realized. With the civil rights movement gaining national momentum he began planning a march for August 1963. The coalition of groups involved represented a fascinating cross-section of African American leaders, religious leaders, unions members, and politicians.
John Lewis, one of the youngest speakers that day, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and generated some controversy with his proposed speech. Lewis had circulated the text of his speech beforehand and was asked by some of the organizers of the speech to change the more militant sections. In his 1979 interview for Eyes on the Prize, Lewis talked about the speech and changes he made,
But I suggested that as a movement that we could not wait on the President on members of the Congress. We had to take matters into our own hand, and went on to say that, that the day might come when we would not confine our marching on Washington, where we might be forced to march through the south the way Sherman did, nonviolently. And some of the people suggested that was inflammatory, that would call people to riot, and you shouldn’t use that type of language. And Mr. Randolph really came to my defense…But even after we got, after we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, people had problems with some of the changes. — —Interview with John Lewis, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
The line up of speakers and singers showcased great singers including Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. In Bayard Rustin’s interview, preserved and digitized as part of the “Eyes on the Prize Digitization and Reassembly Project,” he spoke about the planning process,and the people who attended the march,
Well, in terms of interesting people, Josephine Baker flew in from Paris. We had practically every movie star on the lot who was famous at the time: Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte. They were all there. But they were not the important people. The important people were those people who hitchhiked, who came on crutches, who came in ramshackle automobiles, who walked, because that was the mass. They were the voice….
The march culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr’s rousing and inspiring “I Have A Dream” speech. Reflecting the spontaneity of the day and the King’s skill as a speaker, the original text of the speech did not include the lines about the dream. King had done variations on that theme in previous speeches but had been told by his colleague Wyatt Tee Walker, and others, not to include it. In the moment though, when singer Mahalia Jackson called out for Martin to tell them about the dream. He did and spoke in soaring rhetoric and poetic terms that moved not only the people at the march but the radio and television audience that were broadcasting the speakers and proceedings of the march.
The speech was widely recognized as a masterpiece of rhetoric and was recently added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Drawing on numerous literary, biblical, and historical references, and using a repetition of lines that builds to an emotional high point, King’s words and delivery of the speech have a power that is still felt today.