Wednesday, August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The 1963 gathering at the Washington D.C. mall was one of the largest rallies for human rights in history. Most of us associate it with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered (supposedly impromptu) in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s perhaps the most celebrated speech in America after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, memorable not only for its noble precepts, but the oratorical power and grace of its deliverer.
The march was conceived as a rally for jobs, specifically better job opportunities for African Americans. Through the influence of civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom in the 1940s had pressured President Roosevelt to end discrimination in the U.S. military, it evolved into a mass protest for civil rights.
Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as 1963 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.
(Rachelle Horowitz, aide to Bayard Rustin, from Smithsonian Magazine article “A Change is Gonna Come”)
Until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks had been oppressed under the stasis of “Jim Crow” statutory legislation – essentially, legalized bigotry and segregation, mainly in the Southern states. The March on Washington was intended to publicize these injustices nationally. It ultimately drew 250,000 people, both blacks and whites, and included luminaries like singers Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary; actors Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Ossie Davis; and comedian/activist Dick Gregory.
Although there was a large contingency of police, there was no violence. According to Julian Bond, then communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King’s speech was the centerpiece:
When Dr. King spoke, he commanded the attention of everybody there. His speech, with his slow, slow cadence at first and then picking up speed and going faster and faster… you saw what a magnificent speechmaker he was, and you knew something important was happening.
Andrew Young, aide to King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), recalls that the march helped broaden the civil rights struggle by illuminating exactly why blacks down South were being beaten, hosed, and even murdered: these weren’t rabble-rousers, but non-violent men, women and children trying to gain some dignity and basic human rights:
(News reports) didn’t say they put the dogs on us because (we) were trying to register to vote. That never came through. Or (we) were in places trying to apply for jobs and they ran (us) out with dogs and fire hoses. Everybody had a 90-second view of the movement from the 6 o’clock news. And (the march) gave (us) an opportunity, especially in Martin’s speech, to put it in the context.
After the march, organizers met President Kennedy at the door of the Oval Office where, according to John Lewis, chairman of SNCC and now a 13-term Georgia congressman, “He greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.”
Over the last 50 years, civil rights have come a long way. Today, minorities and women have unprecedented economic and political clout. But the human rights movement is forever pushing against those who would denigrate and deprive people living on society’s fringes. One can still see it in those 90-second bits on the 6 o’clock news: state constitutions banning same-sex marriage and unions; xenophobic congressmen stonewalling against immigration reform; the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act; red states engaged in redistricting and devising creative, new, illogical barriers to voting.
But the March on Washington is proof that, when enough oppressed people organize and loudly proclaim “We have our rights!,” society can progress just a little.
(quotations courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine, July issue)