Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech is one of the most important speeches in American history. It influenced many Americans at the time to support the civil rights movement and it has influenced future generations of reformers and activists to fight for social justice. The speech had such a powerful impact that it tends to overshadow the many people who had contributed to the famous March on Washington in 1963. The protest march was a culmination of the great civil rights leaders and organizations of the time, and of the 250,000 people who participated in a nonviolent demonstration to promote Civil Rights and economic equality for African Americans.
The march was initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO. Randolph had organized a previous March on Washington during World War II to pressure the United States government and President Franklin D. Roosevelt into establishing protections against discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 protesters marching on Washington D.C., President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the first Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), and Randolph called off the march. The success of this gave the impetus for Randolph to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 for racial and economic justice.
According to the website for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, the March on Washington was sponsored by five of the largest civil rights organizations in the United States. “The big six,” civil rights leaders of the Civil Rights movement were all involved in the event: A. Philip Randolph; Whitney Young, President of the National Urban League (NUL); Roy Wilkins, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer, President of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and Martin Luther King Jr. founder and President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Bayard Rustin, a close associate of Randolph’s and a major civil rights leader and strategist since the 1940s, orchestrated and administered the details of the march. Rustin was a Quaker and one of the founding members of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, in the 1940s. During this time, Rustin learned about Gandhi’s nonviolent forms of protest, and he used that philosophy to organize the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, a percursor of the Freedom Rides, where 8 black and 8 white participants rode together in public transportation in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, all with segregated systems. He taught the nonviolent protest philosophy to Martin Luther King Jr. during the bus boycotts in Montgomery and he was involved in behind-the-scenes strategizing for many civil rights campaigns. He is not as well known today because of his homosexuality, which many civil rights leaders worried would undermine their efforts with the public.
Rustin and his staff had only two months to plan the difficult logistics of transportation, publicity, and safety for the large number of activists that they hoped would come to Washington. Money was raised by the sale of buttons for the march at 25 cents apiece, and thousands of people sent in small cash contributions. They worked hard to ensure that the march would remain nonviolent, as any outbreak of violence would seriously damage the cause of civil and economic equality that the march stood for.
While A. Philip Randolph wanted the march to focus on jobs and economic equality, SNCC and CORE wanted to highlight the nonviolent protests against Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. King’s SCLC was waging a long campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. Each organization was focused on different aspects of the civil rights movement. Some were more moderate, while some were becoming increasing radical in their outlook as they encountered firsthand the cultural and institutional roadblocks of racism. One of the most radical of the activists was John Lewis, head of SNCC. He had wanted to include a speech in the march that was critical how little the Kennedy administration had done to protect southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South, but was eventually persuaded to give a more conciliatory speech by other civil rights leaders.
On August 28 more than 200,000 people gathered by the Washington Monument, where the march was to begin. It was a diverse crowd: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Hollywood stars and everyday people, activists, artists, blue collar workers, clergy and everyday people. Musicians Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and Marian Anderson sang at the protest. A link to the program of the March On Washington shows that the speakers included A. Philip Randolph, Archbishop Patrick O’ Doyle, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake of the Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Medgar Evans, John Lewis of SNCC, Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO, James Farmer of CORE, Rabbi Uri Miller of the Synangogue Council of America, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Matthew Ahmann of the National Catholic Conference of Interracial Justice, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress, Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr.
Here are some books that you could read to learn more about the March on Washington and it’s influence on future movements: Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner; This Is the Day: The March on Washington by Leonard Freed; The March On Washington by James Haskins; I Have A Dream by Kadir Nelson; A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard by Andrew E. Kersten; A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Cornelius Bynum; Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer by Jerald Podair; Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement by Daniel Levine; Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow; Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63 and Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch; Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso;
and Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition by Lucy G. Barber.
Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the March on Washington in 1963
A youtube video of Bayard Rustin, one of the primary organizers of the March on Washington in 1963
A youtube video of A. Philip Randolph, one of the primary organizers of the March on Washington in 1963
A youtube video of excerpts of the March on Washington in 1963
Photographs of the March on Washington in 1963
Rabbi Joachim Prinz speaks out in the March on Washington in 1963
Danny Glover reading a speech that John Lewis was going to read in the March on Washington in 1963
Mahalia Jackson singing at the March on Washington in 1963
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the March on Washington in 1963
Peter, Paul and Mary at the March on Washington in 1963
Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Sidney Poitier, talk about the Civil Rights Movement of 1963
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech”