What were the goals and messages of the March on Washington?
- Examine each document in your packet one at a time, reading any texts out loud. Discuss the Description Discussion Questions with each document.
- After examining all of the documents in your packet, read and discuss the Analysis questions (below).
- Using the Analysis questions as a guide, choose 1 or 2 documents (or excerpts from documents) that you think best demonstrate what your group learned.
- Write captions for your documents.
- Your teacher will give you further instructions as to how your group will share your findings.
March on Washington Button: Discussion Questions - Description
- What do you see on this button? (Give everyone in the group a chance to add something that they see.)
- Just looking at the button, what do you think the phrase "Jobs and Freedom" means? What do you see that makes you say that?
- Based on what you see in this button, what do you think were some of the implicit and explicit goals of the 1963 March on Washington? What makes you say that?
- Based on what you've already learned about the Civil Rights Movement, what types of freedoms do you think the marchers hoped to bring about?
Marchers Photograph: Discussion Questions - Description
- What is going on here? What do you see that makes you say that?
- What do the slogans on the placards suggest to you? How are they the same or different from what you remember of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech?
- Why do you think the photographer framed the picture the way he/she did? How would the effect have been different if the man with his back to the camera had been left out? How would the effect have been different if the photographer had zoomed in on only a few people in the front row?
- Based on what you see in this photograph, what specific demands did the civil rights activists at the March on Washington have?
- If you made some predictions about the goals of the marchers, based on the March on Washington button on the previous page, how accurately did your predictions match the demands on signs in this photograph?
Context for John Lewis speech
John Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the time of the March on Washington. The youngest of the "Big Six," (as the heads of a group of major civil rights organizations were known), Lewis wanted to use the platform of the March provocatively, to push the public to take stronger action. After a draft of his original speech was circulated, President Kennedy's administration and some of the March's leadership demanded that Lewis change his speech. Lewis and other student leaders protested this censorship, but ultimately, a personal intervention from respected civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph persuaded Lewis to tone down his speech.
Note: Audio of John Lewis' speech from a live radio broadcast can be downloaded from NPR. After his speech, one of the radio commentators notes that changes were made in the speech from the prepared text given to the press earlier that day.
Excerpt of John Lewis' Speech delivered at the March on Washington
Excerpt of John Lewis' Speech delivered at the March on Washington
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, 12 hours a day. While we stand here, there are students in jail on trumped-up charges…
We come here today with a great sense of misgiving. It is true that we support the administration's Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however. Unless title three is put in this bill, there's nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration...
My friends let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their career on immoral compromise and allow themselves an open forum of political, economic and social exploitation dominate American politics.
There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, ‘My party is a party of principles’? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia?...
To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now...
…I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.
They're talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop…If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.
By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
Cut Portions from John Lewis' speech at the March on Washington
…In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill; for it is too little, and too late…
Moreover, we have learned—and you—should know—since we are here for Jobs and Freedom—that within the past ten days a spokesman for the Administration appeared in a secret session before the committee that's writing the civil-rights bill and opposed and has almost killed a provision that would have guaranteed in voting suits, for the first time, a fair federal district judge. And, I might add, this Administration's bill or any other civil rights bill—as the 1960 civil-rights act—will be totally worthless when administered by racist judges, many of whom have been consistently appointed by President Kennedy.
I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?
The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery...To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait’, we must say that, ‘Patience is a dirty and nasty word’. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence…
The revolution is a serious one, Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put it in the courts. Listen Mr. Kennedy, Listen Mr. Congressmen, Listen fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a ‘cooling-off’ period…
…We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—non-violently…We will make the action of the past few months look petty…
John Lewis speech: Discussion Questions
- Primary Document Review: Who wrote this speech? When was it delivered?
- Who was the intended audience(s) for this speech? How do you think this might have influenced its content and/or tone?
- John Lewis's speech was considered controversial, even without the lines that were cut. Consider the message(s) he conveys in the speech. Have one member of your group describe in his/her own words the overall message John Lewis conveyed in the speech he delivered at the March on Washington. Have another member of your group describe the message conveyed by the portion of his speech that was cut. Have a third member of your group describe how the messages differed. (If your group doesn't find a significant difference between them, discuss why you think individuals at the time did perceive a difference and saw Lewis' speech as controversial.)
- How does John Lewis use analogy, language, and tone to make his point? What are some specific examples of this?
- What, if anything, strikes you in particular in John Lewis' speech? How does the tone and/or message differ from MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech?
- John Lewis was pressured by various leaders, including some of those organizing the March, to make changes to his speech or risk being cut from the program. (They were particularly concerned about the analogy he made to General Sherman's march through the South in the Civil War, in which Sherman and his troops burned down Atlanta.) With this in mind, do you think he should have cut the lines that he cut? Why or why not?
- How, if at all, does this interview affect your understanding of Lewis' speech?
After you examine all of the sources in this Document Study answer the following questions:
- Civil Rights activists used many different tactics to effect change. What are the various ways you think a march can impact a movement? What do you think was effective and/or not effective about the March on Washington, from what you've learned thus far?
- Using all the evidence provided by the documents you examined and your discussion so far, make a list of the goals/purposes of the March on Washington reflected in these documents. (There were other central goals, such as advocating for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that are not reflected in your packet.)
- How might some of these goals be competing? How do you think the organizers of the March might have dealt with the fact that there were several agendas for the event?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "What were the goals and messages of the March on Washington?." (Viewed on December 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/documentstudies/what-were-goals-and-messages-of-march-on-washington>.