An Introduction to the March on Washington
Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Civil Rights, Unit 2, Lesson 7
On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people descended on Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Coming at the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and a time at which the Civil Rights Movement faced violent opposition in the South but was gaining support from a wider American public, the March was planned by a coalition of civil rights organizations as a large-scale, non-violent demonstration. It went down in history as the largest demonstration ever up to that time. The image of the Washington Mall filled with people and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" have become enduring icons of the Civil Rights Movement.
But the March on Washington was not without conflict and controversy. Differences among the leaders of the March also threatened to erupt. Though some of the March's organizers saw its purpose as supporting President John F. Kennedy's call for a civil rights bill, others wanted the March to raise attention to civil rights and economic issues beyond the bill; some even wanted to condemn the Kennedy Administration for their slowness to respond to civil rights issues. The White House initially opposed the event, afraid it would become violent and would derail the proposed legislation.
The idea for the March came from labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and Vice-President of the AFL-CIO. He had proposed a similar March on Washington in 1941 to protest discrimination against blacks in wartime industries. President Roosevelt convinced him to call off that demonstration by allowing blacks to work in military factories. In 1963, Randolph revived the idea of a March on Washington, and with his associate Bayard Rustin, organizer of the first Freedom Ride in 1947, organized leaders of the major civil rights organizations – Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, James Farmer of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and John Lewis of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – to support it. When the White House saw the broad support for the March, they gave up their initial opposition and endorsed it, encouraging white organizations, such as the United Auto Workers, Jewish institutions, and the Catholic Church, to participate. While the labor organizations and the National Urban League focused on the "jobs" part of the March's title – the economic condition of African Americans – the other organizations focused primarily on the goal of "freedom" – basic civil rights.
One conflict in the planning of the March concerned the speech to be given by John Lewis, the leader of SNCC. Lewis wanted to use the platform of the March provocatively, to push the public to take stronger action. In the original draft of his speech, Lewis used the language of revolution and the analogy of General Sherman's march through the South (in the Civil War), in which he burned down Atlanta, to call on civil rights activists to march through the South with equal purpose and force. The Kennedy administration and some of the March's leadership demanded Lewis change his speech, but Lewis and other student leaders protested this censorship. Ultimately, a personal intervention from Randolph persuaded Lewis to tone down his speech. Lewis recalls that Randolph approached him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, "'John we've come so far together, let's stay together. For the sake of unity make these changes... Delete the reference to Sherman.' And you couldn't say no to A. Philip Randolph." (Quoted in NPR report, “Behind the March on Washington: A 40th Anniversary Look at the Struggles to Stage the Event,” August 22, 2003.) This compromise enabled Lewis to remain part of the program, but alienated many radical activists, who felt that the March was merely a "picnic," not an effective political protest.
Women leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Dorothy Height, President of National Council of Negro Women and a long-standing activist, also noticed something missing from the March's program: women. Though a few female singers, such as Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, and Joan Baez, graced the podium, no women were invited to deliver speeches. This absence prompted Height and her colleague, Polly Cowan, to focus their work moving forward on women's role in the Civil Rights Movement. In the months after the March on Washington, they developed the "Wednesdays in Mississippi" program to bring black and white northern and southern women together to educate and support one another in civil rights activism (see Unit 2 lesson 5).
The March attracted a large and diverse crowd: black and white, young and old, women and men, seasoned activists and first-time demonstrators came together on the Washington Mall. Approximately one quarter of the marchers were white; one sixth were students.
The Jewish presence at the March on Washington was notable. Jewish leadership represented on the platform included Shad Polier of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Leon Foyer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, George Maislan of the United Synagogue of America, Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress, and Rabbi Uri Miller of the Synagogue Council of America. Rabbi Miller gave one of the opening prayers, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivered one of the main speeches. Prinz, a refugee from Eastern Europe, drew on the lessons of the Holocaust as the imperative for speaking out and supporting civil rights. These public figures were joined by thousands of Jewish marchers, some of whom marched under the banners of Jewish organizations, such as the National Federation of Temple Youth, the United Synagogue of America, and the Emma Lazarus Federation, and many others who traveled to Washington with secular groups or with friends and family.
The significance of the March on Washington was determined by its unexpected size – the image of the crowd spreading from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument was astounding not only to those present but to those following the event from home on television – and by the power of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech. King not only demanded justice in language taken from the prophets (e.g. Amos 5:24: "… until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream") but also – in an extemporaneous, poetic coda to his prepared speech – shared his own dreams of a world in which his children would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" and in which we would all be "free at last." His words and vision are the most lasting legacy of the March on Washington.