March on Washington

In 1963 leaders of the civil rights movement decided to organize what became known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin was given overall control of the march and he managed to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.

The decision to appoint Bayard Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who was against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist Party made him an easy target for the right-wing press. Although Rustin had left the party in 1941, he still retained his contacts with its leaders such as Benjamin Davis.

Wilkins also feared that the fact that Rustin had been imprisoned several times for both refusing to fight in the armed forces and for acts of homosexuality, would be used against him in the days leading up to the march. However, Martin Luther King and Philip Randolph insisted that he was the best person for the job.

Wilkins was right to be concerned about a possible smear campaign against Rustin. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King.

This information was now passed on to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Storm Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a "communist, draft dodger and homosexual".

Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: "If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital they will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of unconstrained violence if Congress doesn't deliver."

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King (SCLC), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Philip Randolph, speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28th August, 1963)

We are not an organization or a group of organizations. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom. The revolution reverberates throughout the land, touching every city, every town, every village where blacks are segregated, oppressed and exploited. But this civil rights demonstration is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights; for our white allies knew that they cannot be free while we are not. And we know that we have no future in which six million black and white people are unemployed, and millions more live in poverty. Those who deplore our militancy, 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 tensions than enforcing racial democracy.

(2) Roy Wilkins, speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28th August, 1963)

For nine years our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation. The Civil Rights Bill now under consideration in the Congress must give new powers to the Justice Department to enable it to speed the end of Jim Crow schools, North and South.

Now, my friends, all over this land and especially in parts of the Deep South, we are beaten and kicked and maltreated and shot and killed by local and state law-enforcement officers. The Attorney General must be empowered to act on his own initiative in the denial of any civil rights, not just one or two, but any civil rights in order to wipe out this shameful situation.

Just be your presence here today we have spoken loudly and eloquently to our legislature. When we return hoome, keep up the speaking by letters and telegrams and telephone and, wherever possible, by personal visit. Remember that this has been a long fight. We were reminded of it by the news of the death yesterday in Africa of Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. Now, regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. DuBois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by DuBois published in 1903.

(3) John Lewis, speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28th August, 1963)

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages, at all.

In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations.

The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. "One man, one vote," is the African cry. It is ours, too.

We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles"? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?

We won't stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won't stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own "scorched earth" policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground - nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!

(4) Walter Reuther, speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28th August, 1963)

I am here today with you because with you I share the view that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American to join in.

For 100 years the Negro people have searched for first-class citizenship and I believe that they cannot and should not wait until some distant tomorrow. They should demand freedom now. Here and now.

It is the responsibility of every American to share the impatience of the Negro American. And we need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we have bridged the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights. American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performances in this important area.

(5) Martin Luther King, speech, I Have a Dream (28th August, 1963)

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!