Academic journal article Social Education

The 1963 March on Washington

Academic journal article Social Education

The 1963 March on Washington

Article excerpt

ON AUGUST 28, 1963, more than 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation's capital to participate in the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom". Not only was it the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history, but it also occasioned a rare display of unity among the various civil rights organizations. The event began with a rally at the Washington Monument featuring several celebrities and musicians. Participants then marched the mile-long Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. The three-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial included speeches from prominent civil rights and religious leaders. The day ended with a meeting between March leaders and President John F. Kennedy at the White House.

The idea for the 1963 March on Washington was conceived by A. Philip Randolph, a long-time civil rights activist dedicated to improving the economic condition of black Americans. Randolph had a history of fighting and winning major battles against racial discrimination. In the 1920s, he became involved in the labor movement and was asked to organize a union for the black Pullman Sleeping Car employees. As thunder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), Randolph negotiated a labor contract with the Pullman Company and gained admittance for the black union into the all-white American Federation of Labor (AFL).

In 1941, Randolf planned a mass protest in Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end racial discrimination in the defense industry. When FDR issued Executive Order 8802, thereby establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, Randolph called off the march. Several years later, Randolph played a part in convincing another president, Harry S. Truman, to ban segregation in the military services. Despite these victories, Randolph knew blacks could not enjoy their new legal freedoms without better employment. He saw the March on Washington as a great opportunity to unify all of the major civil rights organizations and improve black economic opportunities.

When Randolph first proposed the March in late 1962, he received little response from other civil rights leaders. He knew that cooperation would be difficult to the Civil Rights Movement, and the leaders competed for funding and press coverage. Success at the March on Washington would depend on the involvement of the so-called "Big-Six" (Randolf himself plus the heads of the five major civil rights organization: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); James Farmer of the Conference of Racial Equality (CORE); and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). More militant or separatist groups such as the Black Muslims were not asked to join the coalition.

Disagreements among the leaders led to problems from the beginning. Both Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were afraid that a protest march would damage the good relations they had built with members of Congress. James Farmer and John Lewis looked forward to direct action in the nation's capital, using civil disobedience and the nonviolent techniques they had employed in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. Martin Luther King, Jr., was busy campaigning against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, but was considering taking his protest to Washington, D.C. Randolph had the difficult task of bringing these strong-minded individuals together for a team effort. His ability to act as a mediator led one newspaper article to describe him as "unique because he accepts everyone in a movement whose members do not always accept one another." Under Randolph's influence, the March on Washington became the single event to unify all civil rights organizations. Before and after the March, these organizations chose to work on their own, using their own methods and focusing on the aspect of civil rights that most interested them. …

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