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The March on Washington

By: Garry Crystal - Updated: 19 Feb 2020 | comments*Discuss
March On Washington Civil Rights

In 1963 America had seen many civil rights demonstrations deteriorate into violence against the demonstrators from the authorities. The time had now come to reawaken the massive “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” plan that had been discussed almost two decades earlier.

The Original March on Washington Plan

In 1963 the economic gap between black and whites had been widening and the March on Washington was designed to highlight this problem. In 1941 A. Phillip Randolph the civil rights leader had planned a 100,000 mass march to obtain equal employment opportunities and desegregation in the armed forces. At the time Roosevelt designed the Fair Employment Practice Committee and the march was put on hold. Almost twenty years later in 1963 the time was right to bring about another March on Washington but on a much larger scale.

The 1963 Riots

The revival of Asa Philip Randolph’s March on Washington plan came during a year when America was shocked by the violence against black civil rights demonstrators. Police had been battering demonstrators with fire hoses and using tear gas at demonstrations in both Virginia and Georgia. In Alabama the police had been using electric cattle prods against demonstrators. In Birmingham, 959 children between the age of six and eighteen were jailed after a peaceful demonstration at which they sang, “We shall overcome”.

The Purpose of the March

There was some dispute within the organisers of the march over what the actual purpose of the march would be. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw it as a way to highlight civil rights issues and economic problems that would go beyond President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) thought the march would act as a condemnation of Kennedy’s lack of support for African-American’s civil rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) wanted the march as a show of support for Kennedy’s civil rights bill.

President Kennedy and the March

Originally President Kennedy was opposed to the March on Washington. There were fears that the day would turn into one of violent confrontations and riots. Malcolm X had criticised the march, calling it, “the farce on Washington”. In June 1963 Kennedy met with civil rights leaders in an attempt to stop the march. However, there was no way this march was going to be called off. Kennedy was reassured that march was intended as a show of support for his civil rights bill and no demands were going to be made.

Security on the Day

Security on the day was at a maximum in anticipation of a day of violent confrontations. All leave for Washington’s 2900 police was cancelled for 28 August 1963. Thousands of troops were called in to Virginia and Maryland, and other paratroopers were situated at various locations in the South. There were a further 2000 members of the National Guard called in for duty on the historic day. In the end the March on Washington was a peaceful demonstration without a single incident of violence.

Marchers on the Day

Around 7am on 28 August 1963 people slowly began to fill the Lincoln Memorial area. By 9am 40,000 people had arrived and in the end 250,000 people turned up to bear witness to this historic occasion. People came from all over America; there was a report of a man roller-skating from Chicago, a trip taking 10 days and covering 689 miles. Millions more watched the event on televisions around the globe. The day included speechs from civil rights leaders and songs from activists including Bob Dylan.

Key Speakers

Key speakers on this historic day included the originator of the march, A. Philip Randolph, the 74 year old civil rights elder statesman. The 23 year old John Lewis made a passionate and fiery speech that included some revisions and cuts to material that was deemed too incendiary. But it was Martin Luther King Jr’s inspirational, “I have a dream” speech that captured the nations attention and will forever be linked with that historic day. King’s speech was prewritten but it was Mahalia Jackson’s cry out for King to tell his dream that led to the passionate rendering of King’s speech.

The March on Washington did not have the immediate impact that was hoped for and it took a year before Kennedy’s civil rights bill was passed through congress. However, the march was an important event in the history of the civil rights movement. That day brought black and white men and women together in the hope of achieving freedom and equal rights for all. It was a day that would bring hope and touch everyone who took part or witnessed the event.

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