The March on Washington
The March on Washington was the largest human rights demonstration in the history of the American republic. Its organizers hoped to attract 100,000 people to the nationÃ¯Â¿Â½s capitol on August 28th, 1963. Instead they got 300,000, who arrived in 30 special trains, 2,000 chartered busses, and thousands of car pools. They came from all over the nation: civil rights workers from the Deep South, church goers and labor union members from the East, the Mid-West and even the Far West, middle-class blacks from every walk of life, kids from the ghetto. Nearly a third of the participants were white, and for many Americans who watched the spectacle on television, it was the first time they had seen whites and blacks walking and demonstrating in solidarity.
The March was entirely peaceful in spite of dire predictions of riot and violence by politicians, the police and the press. President Kennedy tried to get the March cancelled, but when the leaders persisted, he reluctantly endorsed it. The March was the inspiration of A. Philip Randolph, elder statesman of civil rights movement, and President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, but it took the organizing genius of his lieutenant, Bayard Rustin to pull it off.
The theme of the March was jobs and freedom with an additional call for passage of a voting rights act. As Randolph said: "We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom" John Lewis, the Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gave the most radical speech— so radical in fact that the more conservative civil rights leaders tried to get it toned down. In a modified version, Lewis said: "By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces, and put them back together in the image of God and democracy."
But it was Martin Luther King whose words set the tone of the March and are the most remembered. Tracing the history of the struggle for black freedom from Emancipation to the present, King said, "A hundred years later the Negro lives on an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. A hundred years later the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land." But he continued, "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" And when this happens and when we allow freedom to ring "all 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.'"
It is not clear what the March accomplished. The Voting Rights Act continued to languish in Congress, and only eighteen days later the Klu Klux Klan blasted a huge hole in a Birmingham church killing four small black girls. Perhaps the March's greatest accomplishment was the spectacle itself: hundreds of thousands of determined but peaceful people united in the cause of justice and equality. For many Americans it was their first awakening to the understanding that profound change was coming. Black America would wait no longer.