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Free by '63: The March on Washington

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Free by '63: The March on Washington

One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was written, African Americans were still fighting for equal rights in every day life. The first real success of this movement did not come until the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 which was followed by many boycotts and protests. The largest of these protests, the March on Washington, was held on August 28, 1963 "for jobs and freedom" (March on Washington 11). An incredible amount of preparation went into the event to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people attending from around the nation and to deal with any potential incidents.

According to the march organizers, the march would symbolize their demands of "the passage of the Kennedy Administration Civil Rights Legislation without compromise of filibuster," integration of all public schools by the end of the year, a federal program to help the unemployed, and a Federal Fair Employment Act which would ban job discrimination ("The March on Washington" 11). In order for the march not to appear as a war of white versus black it had to be racially integrated so it looked like justice versus injustice. Some organizers wanted to call for massive acts of disobedience across America, but when the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P. joined the organization of the march, they insisted against it. The march was originally going to be on Capitol Hill to influence congress, but because of a 1882 law against demonstrating there, they decided to march to the Lincoln Memorial and invite congress to meet them there, knowing that they would not.

When planning the march, the organizers made sure that Washington D.C. was ready for anything so that the march could go on no matter the circumstances. Marchers were advised to bring raincoats, hats, sunglasses, plenty of water, and non-perishable food. To accommodate the expected 100,000 to 200,000 people, there were 292 outdoor toilets, 21 water fountains, 22 first aid stations, 40 doctors and 80 nurses along the march ("On the March" 17). The National Council of Churches made 80,000 boxed lunches for the marchers at 50 cents each. When the buses of people came to Washington D.C.'s outskirts, 5,600 cops and 4,000 army troops came to patrol the parade.

People from around the country came by any means necessary to support the march. One man from Chicago began roller-skating to Washington D.C. 11 days before the march ("On the March" 17). One of the march organizers described it as "if they can't come any other way, they'll look down and say, 'feet, start movin'" ("On the March" 17). Mayors nearby Washington D.C. even gave city workers the day off so they could attend. For those too far away, there were symbolic marches on city halls across America and American Embassies around the world. James Baldwin who was in France at the time, took part in one of these.

The marchers gathered at the Washington Monument before dawn as planned on August 28, 1963. At 11:30, 100,000 to 200,000 of them began marching towards the Lincoln Memorial singing "We Shall Overcome" ("The March on Washington" 12). At the memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered multiple speeches along with other African Americans about segregation and discrimination issues. During one of his speeches, King Jr. declared that "we will not hate you, but we cannot obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we will still love you...But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we will win you in the process" ("Negro Protest Movement" 507). This statement by King Jr. describes his plans of further nonviolent protesting against "unjust laws" to convince others of the civil rights movement's cause. He furthers this statement and elaborates his ideas in his infamous speech, "I Have a Dream."

Despite initial skepticism by the White House, thinking that the march was capable of much more harm than good, President Kennedy believed it to be greatly successful. At the end of the march, Kennedy met with all the organizers of the march and proclaimed that "the cause of 20 million Negroes has not only been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation's shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significantly is the contribution to all mankind" (Nabrit 507). Kennedy believed that the march was executed very well and contributed greatly. The president elaborates on this as he describes that "the Negroes struggle was not a struggle for the President or Congress alone, what we're really talking about is a problem which involves 180 million people" ("On the March" 17). This shows how the march was not just viewed as trying to get legislation passed in congress, but was also seen more broadly as a struggle for civil rights altogether.

The March on Washington had many effects on the nation and the world as a whole by making "it quite clear that the Negro in America could obtain first-class leadership but that his own leadership and his own sustained efforts



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