March on Washington: The Activists Who Took a Stand for Equality

We look back at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963, and remember the activists who made change happen.
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Martin Luther King Jr. Photo Gallery: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to participants in the Civil Rights Movement's March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. It was from this spot that he delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech on August 28, 1963. (Photo:  Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to participants in the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. It was from this spot that he delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech on August 28, 1963. 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which called for both improved economic opportunity and civil rights for black Americans, took place on August 28, 1963. At the time many predicted the demonstration would undermine chances of passing a civil rights bill, but activists believed it was necessary to take a stand for equality. Today, as the fight for justice continues, it seems appropriate to take a look back at how this march came together.

A March Is Announced

On July 2, 1963, leaders from six civil rights groups — A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney M. Young Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and John Lewis — announced plans for a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. These men all wanted equality for black Americans, but the tactics and methods they adopted often varied.

For example, Randolph was a septuagenarian labor organizer who understood the importance of access to good-paying jobs; King, known for his soaring oratory, had successfully overseen a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955-56; and Lewis headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose membership had endured beatings and intimidation in work that included struggling to desegregate interstate public transportation during the Freedom Rides campaign.

These leaders also disagreed on who should handle march logistics. Randolph wanted to put Bayard Rustin in charge, as Rustin was a skilled organizer — during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Rustin had counseled King on nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. But Rustin was gay (he'd been arrested in 1953 on a "morals" charge), had joined the Communist Party for a short time and had gone to prison for refusing to serve during World War II.

March Planning and Opposition

The solution was for Randolph to become march director and select Rustin as his deputy; Rustin then set up an office in Harlem and got to work. His tasks included getting funds for a sound system, having brochures printed, arranging for drinking water and directing volunteers to prepare boxed lunches. Plus he had to plan for how many toilets the crowd — 150,000 were hoped for — would require.

There was wariness and anger in Washington, D.C. about the march, which opposing politicians denounced as a Communist plot. President John F. Kennedy feared that any disturbance could derail his proposed civil rights legislation (though he eventually accepted the march and offered some support). Two Southern Democrats in Congress even tried to legislate the demonstration away — one wanted to halt mass protests while a civil rights bill was under consideration, the other attempted to outlaw interstate travel for "any conduct which would tend to incite to riot."

Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson at the March on Washington

 Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director (left), and Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of Administrative Committee prepare for the March on Washington.

Three weeks before the march, Senator Strom Thurmond read out details of Rustin's 1953 arrest on the Senate floor. However, given Thurmond's stance as a staunch segregationist, no one broke with Rustin. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who worked in Rustin's Harlem office, later noted, "I'm sure there were some homophobes in the movement, but you knew how to behave when Strom Thurmond attacked."

Women of the March

Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the sole female member of the march's administrative committee, had spent years battling for civil rights and knew how much of a contribution women had made to the movement: Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, Diane Nash fought to continue Freedom Rides when others wanted to quit and countless women faced danger in order to register voters. 

Given all this, Hedgeman and others wanted a female speaker for the march. But Rustin cited the overloaded program as a reason not to add anyone else (he also felt other women would get jealous if just one were chosen). As the march's date approached, Hedgeman wrote a letter to the committee to demand a female speaker, noting, "It is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial."

Young demonstrator at the March on Washington

A young demonstrator stands in the crowd at the March on Washington. 

In the end, a "Tribute to Negro Women" was added to the program. At the march, Daisy Bates, who'd helped the Little Rock Nine as they'd integrated their school system, read a prepared statement, then several women who'd contributed to the movement were named. It was a compromise, but it didn't offer a female civil rights activist the opportunity to share her own thoughts.

The March Begins

With violence expected, Washington planned to have 6,000 officers — police, marshals and National Guardsman — on hand on August 28, with thousands more soldiers available at nearby bases. Still, enthusiastic attendees arrived for the march; one, Ledger Smith, had roller skated all the way from Chicago.

March on Washington Leaders

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle).

Attendance climbed to about 250,000. With such a big crowd, the procession down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial began without the march's leaders, who had to hurry to the front. Yet even at this point, women were treated differently, with both wives and female activists directed to make their way to the Lincoln Memorial via Independence Avenue instead. 

However, one woman would get the chance to address the crowd herself. Singer and World War II spy Josephine Baker, who'd flown in from France, gave a speech that included this encouragement for attendees: "You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can't go wrong. The world is behind you."

Josephine Baker at the March on Washington

Josephine Baker addresses the crowd at the March on Washington.

Speeches of the March

Several male civil rights leaders gave speeches, as did union and religious leaders. In his talk, Randolph said, "Those who deplore our militants, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension than enforcing racial democracy."

Lewis, who felt Kennedy's proposed civil rights legislation didn't do enough, had penned a speech with radical lines like, "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did." But at the request of other leaders, he agreed to de-escalate his rhetoric. However, Lewis's actual speech was still stirring, as when he demanded, "What political leader can stand up and say, 'My party is a party of principles?'"

Of course, it is King's "I Have a Dream" speech that is best remembered from the event. Yet before his lyrical call for unity, King also declared, "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

After the March

Following the march, male leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Though all were generally pleased, everyone knew the fight wasn't over — it was up to Congress to pass a bill, and the truth was that civil rights legislation wasn't a priority for many members of that branch of government.

March on Washington Leaders and President Kennedy

Leaders of the March on Washington meet with President Kennedy at the White House on August 28, 1963. 

Most female activists remained in town for a conference called "After the March, What?" that was arranged by the National Council of Negro Women. Dorothy Height, NCNW president, would note that at the gathering, "The women became much more aware and much more aggressive in facing up to sexism in our dealings with the male leadership in the movement."

The Civil Rights Act didn't pass until after Johnson became president following Kennedy's assassination in November. However, that doesn't minimize the impact of the March on Washington. As Holmes Norton recalled on the 50th anniversary of the demonstration, "Marches strive for effects, but they don’t usually, immediately, see those effects. While the march was not the cause of the legislation, it is hard to believe that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have occurred without it."