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–by Ronald M. Johnson, Georgetown University

Marchers rest with the Capitol in the background. (White House News Photographers Association/Library of Congress)

On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 demonstrators assembled along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial to call for the end of racial segregation and increased civil liberties for African Americans. Few in attendance could have imagined what a pivotal historical moment the day would become over time. For those there, the goal was to send a message across the United States that the time for racial equality had arrived. With buses parked all over the city, trains and planes unloading throughout the morning, and private automobiles arriving steadily from outside the city, the national capital was set to witness an unprecedented gathering. With thousands in the streets and beginning to move toward the National Mall, the scene was dramatic and inspiring. The marchers held their placards high calling for Freedom, Jobs, and Justice as they headed past the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument for the Lincoln Memorial.

In retrospect today, the March can be seen as an epic occurrence in the larger context of the American civil rights movement. The roots of the event are deep in the early 20th century segregated society that the United States had evolved into after the 1896 Supreme Court decision legalizing the separate but equal doctrine. In 1910, reformers came together to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which launched a process of legal challenges aimed at overthrowing racial segregation. In the following decades, the NAACP joined other civil rights groups to press for equal rights for African Americans and the desegregating of the nation’s political and social institutions.

1946 portrait of DuBois (Carl Van Vechten Collection/Library of Congress)

Over all these years, many outstanding figures emerged to advance this agenda, but particularly significant were William E. B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph. Both individuals come to mind with regard to the 1963 March for different reasons. At 95, and living in Ghana, DuBois helped bring about the moment by the remarkable career he had as a writer and editor in behalf of the cause for African American equality. His books, especially Souls of Black Folk (1903), had inspired and motivated racial reform throughout the years leading up to the March. He had moved to Africa late in life to edit the Encyclopedia Africana. While there, his health failed and he died on August 27. His death was announced to a shocked crowd at the March.

While younger than DuBois, Randolph and his years of activism paralleled those of the more famous black scholar.

A. Philip Randolph at the 1963 march (UPI/Library of Congress)

Randolph’s contribution was as a union leader and advocate for federal governmental racial reform. In 1941, he had called for a march on Washington to protest discrimination in federal hiring contracts. That attempt did not take place, but the idea remained alive in his mind. He continued to call for a national demonstration to advance black civil rights. Thus, as the first efforts to do just that emerged in 1962, Randolph became a natural leader of the plan. In the end, the hope for such a march he had envisioned in 1941 finally came to fruition. He was one of the major speakers at the 1963 event.

Other historical threads wove their way into the 1963 march. The American labor movement, particularly the Congress of Industrial Organizations led by Walter Reuther, had long worked in the civil rights struggle. On that August day in 1963, he joined the leadership of the march. Not at the march, but watching from his home was former President Harry Truman who, in 1948, had issued an executive order desegregating the American military, a decision which had increased the momentum and pace of the call for reform. Then, in 1954, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren reversed the separate but equal doctrine by ruling segregated public education to be unconstitutional. Over the next nine years, that decision produced the immediate events which created the need for a March on Washington. All these developments, and many others, helped set the stage for August 28, 1963.

Despite many concerns that the event might lead to violence, the March on Washington occurred as a model of peaceful protest. The thousands who took part experienced one of the most compelling and thrilling events of American history. They saw, gathered together on one platform, most of the nation’s civil rights leadership and prominent African American performers, all there for one reason: to affirm a dream of an open and integrated society. On the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial stood singers Marian Anderson, Camilla Williams, and Mahalia Jackson, activists Bayard Rustin, Daisy Bases, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Whitney Young, Benjamin Mays, and Roy Wilkins, among many others. The speeches they gave and the songs they sang brightened the hope of all in attendance.

Of course, the main speaker at the event was Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was almost immediately clear that his “I Have A Dream” speech would emerge as one of the great American orations, pulling together all the ideals and promises that had sustained African Americans in their long struggle for equality. In the end, however, the significance of the 1963 March on Washington was much larger than a single speech. The day had changed America. While the goal of greater civil rights was far from becoming a reality, and many struggles and setbacks were yet to unfold, this seminal event would always provide a source of inspiration for future generations. It was, and remains, a day to remember.