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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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


  • 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. 1
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.
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.2
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.3 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 Fifteenth 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?

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