Martin Luther King and the March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr., was born January 15, 1929. He is perhaps best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, which protested for equal jobs and freedom. King was there as a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which he helped found to gather moral authority and to organize the power of African-American churches. They specialized in conducting peaceful demonstration for civil rights reform. Dr. King based the SCLC on Gandhi’s peaceful protesting techniques. 

The march was supposed to be an event to show the desperate condition of African Americans in the South and a very public opportunity to air concerns and grievances right before the might of political power in the nation’s capital. Protesters intended to criticize and challenge the federal government for the breakdown of civil rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and African Americans in the South. After agreeing with presidential pressure, the event took on a far less stringent tone. There were other leaders and organizations forming what became known as the “Big Six”. They were; the NAACP led by Roy Wilkes, The Urban League, led by Whitney Young Jr., Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, SNCC, led by John Lewis, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer. Dr. King thought his role as leader of the SCLC would cause major controversy as he was one of the main figures who had accepted President Kennedy’s wishes and changed the focus of the march. The march was initially opposed of by President Kennedy because of concerns of a negative impact on the drive for civil rights legislation, but the Big Six held firm on the issues of the march. Because so much had been granted President Kennedy in his wishes, some civil rights activists felt the march would be a farce of racial harmony. Malcolm X was so opposed to the changes that the Nation of Islam faced temporary suspension from the march.

The march started at eight o’clock am and with only fifty people on the grounds, it was thought that the march would be smaller than expected, but by ten o’clock am, the crowd had grown and by the end of the day 250,000 people, including African-Americans, Whites, actors, and almost three hundred members of Congress and their representatives had shown up as a show of solidarity.   

National news media covered the march, and when Dr King began his speech, they interrupted programming to show it live. Dr. King had originally planned on giving another speech as the “I Have a Dream” speech was one he had given many times before, but it had never had as much influence as it did on that day, with millions of Americans watching. 

 “I have a dream,” proclaimed King, “that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression; will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” At the end of his speech, Dr. King proclaimed he believed that one day blacks and whites would come together and sing the old African-American spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Dr. King and the other leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House to discuss the current legislation, after the march. They were assured by the President of his commitment to its passage, even though he had concerns the bill would become a hard battle to win due to the lack of support by Republican senators. The leaders left the White House feeling they had President Kennedy’s support, but not sure when or whether the bill would even pass.

In November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and many thought the bill would die with him, but on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It enforced school desegregation, prohibited segregation in public places, and established Equal Employment Opportunities, (which basically meant that a background check done any person would be fair and based on experience and not ethnicity).

o       Video clip and description of the impact of the speech given at the march

o       NPR’s report on the speeches heard at the march and a memorial of that day in 2003

o       PBS’s coverage on the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington

o       Landmark speeches of Martin Luther King

o       The complete “I Have a Dream” Speech given at the March on Washington

o       Audio clips and web links of the march on Washington