In commemoration of the March On Washington – Reflecting on 60 Years

“The Southern Democrats come to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all. We march to demonstrate, massively and dramatically, our unalterable opposition to these forces – and to their century-Iong robbery of the American people. Our bodies, numbering over 100,000, will bear witness – will serve historic notice – that Jobs and Freedom are needed NOW.”

March On Washington Origins of the March

(as documented on

For more than two decades, A. Philip Randolph had dreamed of a massive march on Washington for jobs and justice. As President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, President of the Negro American Labor Council, and Vice President of the AFL-CIO, he is the towering senior statesman of the Black struggle for equality and opportunity. Back in 1941, with the support of Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste, Randolph had threatened to mobilize 100,000 Blacks to march on Washington to protest segregation in the armed forces and employment discrimination in the burgeoning war industries. To forestall Randolph’s march, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (later known as the Fair Employment Act) which outlawed racial discrimination in the national defense industry. This was the first Federal action ever taken against racially-biased employment practices.

Today in the 21st Century, when mass marches in the nation’s capitol are commonplace (five in 2007, for example), it is hard to imagine how radical Randolph’s threat of 100,000 Black protesters descending on Washington seemed to the political establishment. Back then, mass marches in DC were rare, few and far between. The largest previous event had been a racist march by 35,000 members of the Ku K lux Klan in 1925. The suffragettes had managed to mobilize 8,000 marchers in 1913 for women’s voting rights, and in 1957 Randolph, Rustin, and King mobilized close to 30,000 for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Civil Rights. And in 1932, in the depths of the Depression, soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur had used tear gas, bayonets, and sabers to brutally disperse 20,000 World War I veterans pleading for their promised bonus (killing two and wounding hundreds). But those marches were entirely, or predominantly, white. No one had ever brought 100,000 Black protesters into the streets of DC.

In the closing days of 1962, as the Freedom Movement intensifies across the nation, Randolph asks Rustin to draw up plans for a large jobs-oriented protest in Washington. After Birmingham, direct-action protests flare across the country in the Spring of ’63, but the Kennedy administration still hesitates over committing its energies to passage of new civil rights legislation. In May, Dr. King begins to consider the need for national-scale action in Washington to push for an effective civil rights bill. “We are on a breakthrough,” King tells his staff, “We need a mass protest … to unite in one luminous action all of the forces along the far flung front.”

March on Washington, 1963. © John Kouns
March on Washington, 1963. © John Kouns

On June 11, 1963 — the same day as President Kennedy’s address to the nation on civil rights — SCLC leaders announce plans to demonstrate in Washington for new civil rights legislation. They call for: “Massive, militant, monumental sit-ins on Congress…” and “Massive acts of civil disobedience all over this nation. We will tie up public transportation by laying our bodies prostrate on runways of airports, across railroad tracks, and in bus depots.” Later that night Medgar Evers is assassinated. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Excerpted from “History & Timeline”

King, Randolph, and Rustin join forces. Their calls for large-scale direct-action in Washington disturb the Kennedys and annoy members of Congress. On June 22nd, President Kennedy meets with civil rights leaders at the White House to get them to call off the march (which still has no date, no formal plan, no office, no staff, and no funds). Attending are: A. Phillip Randolph, Jim Farmer (CORE), Dr. King (SCLC), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkens (NAACP), and Whitney Young (Urban League). The press dub them the “Big Six” of civil rights. Though Wilkens and Young are undecided about the march, the direct- action wing of the Movement — Randolph, Farmer, King, and Lewis — refuse to cancel it.

After the meeting, JFK tells his aides: “Well, if we can’t stop it, we’ll run the damn thing.”

Coalition Politics

On July 2nd, Randolph and King convene a summit meeting in New York of the “Big Six” to plan a united action in Washington for “Jobs and Freedom.” Roy Wilkens makes it clear that the NAACP — the largest and best funded of all the civil rights organizations — will not participate in any event that includes any form of civil disobedience. Nor is he willing to allow any criticism of, or risk any break with, the Kennedy administration. The call to mobilize 100,000 protesters has inevitably created a numbers game in which success or failure will be judged by turnout. To get that many people to Washington requires chartering and filling more than 2,000 busses. But that cannot be done without the NAACP’s financial resources and its hundreds of chapters across the country. Therefore, thoughts of sit-ins and civil disobedience have to be set aside. It is agreed that the event will be a legally-sanctioned march in cooperation with authorities — a march in Washington, not a march on Washington.

The Kennedys are very uneasy at thought of thousands of Blacks protesting in the streets of Washington. Though JFK publicly supports the march, behind the scenes his administration moves to limit and control it. To reduce the numbers who can participate they demand that it be held on a weekday — a working day — rather than on the weekend. Nervous at the thought of young Blacks loose on the streets at night after the march, they require that all marchers arrive in the morning and be gone from the city by dark.

Politically, they want to prevent any placards or banners critical of the administration — only officially approved signs can be carried. Wilkens insists on acceptance of all these restrictions as the price of NAACP support, and the march is scheduled for Wednesday, August 28 — just 8 weeks away.

The march is intended to be the largest mass protest in American history (up to that time). Only a master organizer can successfully pull it together in just 8 weeks. Everyone at the July 2nd meeting knows that Bayard Rustin is the best man for the job — perhaps the only one who can do it. But Wilkens and Young oppose appointing Rustin to head the march. Rustin, a Quaker, served prison time during WWII as a Conscientious Objector and to them that makes him a “draft dodger;” as a Socialist, Rustin is political anathema; and as a homosexual who had once been arrested on a “morals” charge, they view Rustin as a social pariah and fear that opponents will use Rustin’s past to smear the march. Randolph, King, and Farmer defend Rustin — he’s the one who can get it done, and both Randolph and King have worked successfully with Rustin on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Prayer Pilgrimage to DC for Civil Rights, and the two Youth Marches for Integrated Schools. The debate is hot and bitter. Finally, a compromise is reached, Randolph will be the titular head of the march and Rustin will be his “deputy.” Everyone understands that Rustin will do the actual work of organizing the march.

March on Washington, 1963. © John Kouns
March on Washington, 1963. © John Kouns

SNCC is ambivalent about the march. Deeply suspicious of Kennedy and the traditional, conservative Black leadership, many SNCC activists fear the march is an effort to co-opt and contain rising Black militancy. Others fear it will be an empty gesture — a demonstration without organizing — that distracts and undermines their grass-roots efforts in the Deep South; to them, change does not come from the top by appealing to a government that cares nothing for those at the bottom of society, but rather by building up political power from below. Some SNCC organizers such as Stokely Carmichael refuse to go to Washington at all. On the day before the march, twenty or so SNCC activists led by Bob Moses picket the Department of Justice. He carries a sign reading: “When there is no justice what is the state but a robber band enlarged?” All Tuesday night they hold vigil and on Wednesday morning some of them participate in the march, others do not.

Yet many in SNCC support the march, believing that any form of direct-action, especially large-scale action, helps break down the fear and isolation that play such a large role in the South’s culture of oppression. To them, the march is also a chance to educate the nation about the issues, the Freedom Movement, the courage of people in struggle, and the suffering that Blacks are forced to endure. (To some extent, this disagreement continues the Direct-Action vs Voter Registration debate of 1961.)

In the Black communities where SNCC is working, the idea of the march fires the imagination of local people, many of whom are eager to participate. Unwilling to break the unity of the Freedom Movement, and committed to supporting the aspirations of the local folks who form the base of the struggle, SNCC as an organization agrees to join the coalition. But the NAACP’s restrictions against civil-disobedience and militant direct-action rankle.

Though the “Big Six” try to present a united front to the public, behind the scenes significant divisions remain. To the NAACP and the Urban League, the purpose of the march is to support the President’s civil rights bill. “We see this as an all-inclusive demonstration of our belief in the Presidents’ program,” Young tells a national TV audience on Meet the Press. For Randolph, Rustin, and King, economic issues —unemployment, employment discrimination, raising the minimum wage — are as important as supporting strong, effective civil rights legislation regardless of Kennedy’s stand. “[The march seeks] to arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro,” King counters on the same TV show. SNCC and CORE, while agreeing with Randolph and King on the importance of economic issues and the need to go beyond the Kennedy bill, see the march as a protest of, and challenge to, the administration’s shameful civil rights record of inactivity, neglect, and collaboration with Southern segregationists.


File NameLink
March on Washington Newsletter, Wednesday August 28, 1963Download
Letter from Courtland Cox to Stokely Carmichael, August 18, 1963Download
NAACP Announcement to Branches, Youth Councils, Chapters, and State Conferences, July 30, 1963Download