Sixty years ago, over 250,000 people traveled to the U.S. capital to participate in the March on Washington. They joined Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), Anti-Defamation League (ADL) members, and other civil rights leaders. This momentous display of civic activism took place on the National Mall.
According to the National Park Service, “the event focused on employment discrimination, civil rights abuses against [Black] Americans, Latinos, and other disenfranchised groups.” Additionally, the activists were in Washington to show support for the Robert F. Kennedy Administration’s Civil Rights Act that was before Congress.
USA Today published a story about memories of the March on Washington. They spoke with 75-year-old Clayola Brown, who reflected on hearing the news on the car radio in Philadelphia.
“She recalled the deep, heavy baritone of civil rights activist and march organizer A. Philip Randolph described the inequities of Jim Crow America and the promise of freedom and economic justice.”
Brown was only 15 in 1963 but knew she had to be there. After saving babysitting money, she snuck out of her house and took a bus to Washington, D.C., where she heard Rev. King talk about his vision for the future.
“That was the most exciting day of my entire life,” said Brown, civil rights activist and labor unionist.
Events Leading to the March on Washington
Clarence B. Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer, adviser, and speechwriter, told USA Today, “To understand the March on Washington, you must understand the year 1963.” Several often overlooked events occurred during the months leading to Rev. King’s historic speech “I Have a Dream.”
According to 92-year-old Jones, Dr. King and his supporters met at singer/actor Harry Belafonte’s New York apartment, where King announced a campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama.
The city’s nickname during the civil rights era was Bombingham, in reference to the acts of violent racists who voiced their disapproval of Black Americans moving into their entirely white neighborhoods from the late 1940s to 1960s. Their shouts of anger were punctuated by their use of dynamite to shatter windows and splintered homes and churches. For example, Anti-segregationalists blew up Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s house on Christmas night in 1956, responding to the reverend’s push to desegregate buses.
According to AL.com, bombs exploded at the Gaston Hotel and MLK’s brother, A.D. King’s home after a truce was declared to end weeks of nationally televised protests in May 1963. In September, four Sunday School students were killed in the deadliest, most tragic of the years-long series of bombings. This deadly bombing happened days after city schools were integrated.
Sit-ins, Boycotts, Protests, and Marches
Jones recalls 1963 as pivotal: Civil rights activists started sit-ins, boycotts, protests, and marches.
History.com reports Dr. King, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and their partners in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights launched an offensive of protests, marches, and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham on April 3, 1963.
On Good Friday, April 12, approximately 1,000 activists joined MLK on a peaceful march from the Sixth Avenue Zion Hill Church to City Hall, despite Ku Klux Klan affiliated Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor’s injunction against demonstrating. Connor “remains one of the most notorious pro-segregationists in American history thanks to the brutal methods his forces employed against the Birmingham protester that summer.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Connor instructed motorcycle patrolmen to surround crowds of peaceful marchers to grab and hit protesters during the violent mass arrests.
As a result, police officers brutally arrested Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Shuttlesworth, and at least 55 others. The EJI said almost all those jailed were Black; they were detained for “parading without a permit.”
Jones told USA Today that he remembers visiting Rev. King in jail twice a day. He smuggled sheets of paper beneath his shirt, which MLK used to pen a response to his critics — his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Dr. King wrote it in response to a letter written by several white ministers decrying the march and methods used by civil rights activists.
One of the memorable passages in Rev. King’s letter should be noted: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.” Read the letter here.
What Did the March on Washington Accomplish?
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom invited the United States to change its local and federal legislative policies that suppressed Black Americans. The 1960s activists ushered changes in the Civil Rights Act, desegregated schools, and started low-income lunches in some K-12 public schools.
According to the EPI, “The combined efforts of many moved the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping civil rights legislation to reverse oppressive Jim Crow laws and broadly combat discrimination against people of color.”
However, post-civil rights era legislation failed to address the ever-widening disparities in education, jobs, wages, wealth, healthcare, and homeownership for Black Americans. Unfortunately, in recent years, the resurgence of White Nationalists has resulted in increased hate-based violence and murder. Several states have enacted Jim Crow laws as bad or worse than those the marchers in Washington sought to overturn.
The EPI published a new report that explores the policies the Civil Rights Movement championed through the March on Washington and the Kerner Commission, which can be read here.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
USA Today: ‘Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!’: Memories from the crowd at MLK’s March on Washington; By Grace Hauck and Marc Ramirez
History: Martin Luther King Jr. is jailed; writes “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Economics Policy Institute: Chasing the dream of equity: How policy has shaped racial economic disparities. Report by Adewale A. Maye (pdf)
AL.com: Bombingham: Racist bombing captured in chilling photos; By Jeremy Gray
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