Read about the 1963 protest that culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Overview

  • The March on Washington, which took place on August 28, 1963, was one of the largest civil rights rallies in US history, and one of the most famous examples of non-violent mass direct action.
  • At the march, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, which envisioned a world where people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
  • The March on Washington was highly publicized in the news media, and helped to gather momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington

The March on Washington brought together many different civil rights groups, labor unions, and religious organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
View from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963, where more than a quarter of a million protestors gathered to hear Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nevertheless, not all civil rights activists were in favor of the march. Bayard Rustin, though one of the main organizers of the march, was concerned that it would turn violent and damage the international reputation of the Civil Rights Movement. Others, like Malcolm X, who helped popularize the militant Black Power Movement, derided the March on Washington because of its nonviolent, integrationist approach. Calling it the “Farce on Washington,” Malcolm X condemned black civil rights activists for collaborating with whites and accepting donations from whites. start superscript, 1, end superscript
On August 28, 1963, 250,000 protestors converged on the National Mall in Washington, DC to demonstrate in favor of full civil, political, and economic rights for African Americans. The March on Washington was one of the largest demonstrations for human rights in US history, and a spectacular example of the power of non-violent direct action. 1963 was the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and one of the major themes of the rally was that the promises of emancipation remained unfulfilled. The march began at the Washington monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where representatives of the sponsoring organizations delivered speeches.
The last speaker of the day was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered what became the most famous speech of the entire civil rights era, the “I Have a Dream” speech, which envisioned a world in which people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. August 28, 1963
"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
So we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned . . . .
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, 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 . . ."
Because of this, a popular misconception has arisen that it was Dr. King who initiated the rally. In fact, the idea for a march on Washington belonged to A. Philip Randolph, a black labor leader who headed the Negro American Labor Council at the time of the march, and had previously organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American labor union in US history.start superscript, 2, end superscript
Black and white photograph of Martin Luther King waving to the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

African American demands for economic justice

The sole purpose of the March on Washington was not to eliminate Jim Crow laws, though the protestors certainly desired to bring a swift end to the segregation that had been institutionalized in the South after the Civil War.start superscript, 3, end superscript Though the organizers of the rally demanded the desegregation of all schools, the majority of the demands revolved around issues of economic justice – like equal access to public facilities and accommodations, housing, education, and jobs.
Many in the Civil Rights Movement had come to believe that the economic deprivation and exploitation of African Americans was just as significant a problem as racism. At the time of the March on Washington, Congress was debating civil rights legislation, and widespread news coverage of the rally helped to draw the nation’s attention to these issues and to attain broad public support for the protestors’ demands.
One of the most important demands was for a federal Fair Employment Practices Act, which would ban discriminatory hiring practices. This demand would be realized the following year, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The demand for the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, moreover, would finally be realized with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated the barriers to black enfranchisement that had been erected as part of Jim Crow.

What do you think?

How did the demands presented at the March on Washington reflect the evolving goals of the Civil Rights Movement?
What arguments did Dr. King make in his "I Have a Dream" speech? Why do you think the speech was so effective?
Did the March on Washington reveal a Civil Rights Movement that was united or divided?
What was the outcome of the March on Washington? Did the news media play an important role?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. Malcolm X, *The Autobiography of Malcolm X* (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), 278-281.
  2. See William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
  3. For more on Jim Crow, see C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: A Commemorative Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Attributions
Full text of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech courtesy the King Center.