The 1963 March on Washington is perhaps the most iconic event of the modern civil rights movement. Now a full half-century ago, a quarter of a million Americans gathered to show solidarity with African Americans. Although images of the March on Washington are engrained in our collective conscience, few people realize that the event defined and crystallized a social, political and moral revolution. To commemorate the event, here are 10 things you may not know about the March on Washington.
- The official name of the march was “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The goal was to rally support for civil rights legislation and call attention to the economic challenges confronting the African-American community.
- A March on Washington was first organized in 1941 by A. Phillip Randolph to address employment discrimination toward African Americans. Although an actual march did not materialize, Randolph’s proposal to protest on the National Mall during World War II forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which outlawed discrimination in the defense industries.
- The March on Washington in 1963 was organized by Bayard Rustin, one of A. Phillip Randolph’s closest advisers and a gay black man.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, died the day before march, in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95. Most who attended the march learned of his death when it was announced to the crowd.
- The March on Washington was held exactly eight years after the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
- Although women had been active as organizers in the civil rights movement since its inception, no women were selected to give any of the day’s keynote addresses. As the only woman on the March’s planning committee, Anna Arnold Hegdeman protested the exclusion of female freedom fighters. Josephine Baker addressed the main crowd before the official program began, and Myrlie Evers was scheduled to conduct a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighting for Freedom.” When Evers was delayed due to a scheduling conflict, Daisy Bates substituted, making her the only woman to formally address the crowd during the official program. Bates spoke 142 words.
- Two separate parades were held for male and female civil rights leaders. The men marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. The women—who included Daisy Bates, entertainer and activist Josephine Baker, and Rosa Parks—marched down Independence Avenue.
- The most stirring parts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march, were improvised. King had used the “dream” sentiment before and was unsure about whether to use it again, but he was inspired when gospel legend Mahalia Jackson shouted out from the crowd, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”
- King’s speech didn’t immediately garner the attention it now receives. Following the march, the Washington Post didn’t mention “I Have a Dream” at all. Randolph’s speech was featured instead.
- King and the other senior civil rights leaders censored the speech of John Lewis, representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They thought he took too hard a line against the Kennedy administration. Here is one of the omitted passages: “In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil-rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”
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Adams is a PhD candidate in history at Rutgers University.
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