The March on Washington 50 years later

August 16, 2013

Imagine standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out toward the Washington Monument. A huge crowd has gathered — more than 200,000 people — from all across the nation. They fan out around the Reflecting Pool, to the base of the monument and beyond.

It’s August 1963, and people have come to Washington to demand change. In some parts of the country, black people are not treated the same as white people. The marchers want that to end. They want fair and equal treatment for everyone, no matter the color of their skin. They are part of a growing force called the civil rights movement.

By bus, train and plane, they have come to Washington. Some arrive by car, and one even roller-skates into town. Now they are all on the Mall. For more than five hours they have been marching, singing, praying and listening to speeches.

You are the last speaker on this tiring but exciting day. How will you stir the crowd? As recently as last night, you told a friend you still didn’t know exactly what you would say. But now, here you are. Everyone’s eyes are on you. If you are nervous — who wouldn’t be? — you don’t show it.

You are the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and you are about to give one of the most famous speeches in American history. It will be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. [See Page 3.]

Click for timeline.

For many, it will be the high point of the entire civil rights movement.

A nation still divided

The year 1963 marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in the South were freed. But in some ways, life in the 20th century wasn’t much better for black people (then often called “Negroes” or “colored people”).

“White Only” signs hung over drinking fountains and doorways in several states. Many hotels would not rent rooms to black people. The best jobs went to whites. In some places, black people were not allowed to vote.

Keeping the races separated is called segregation. Schools, churches, buses and trains, movie theaters and even professional sports teams all were segregated at some point in U.S. history.

The 1950s and ’60s featured a big push for equality. King, the son of a Baptist minister and a minister himself, was a leader in this fight for civil rights. He preached the power of love over hate. He urged people to challenge unfair laws and actions, but to do so peacefully. King said black people should work with white people to gain equality.

Not everyone agreed with King, but there was no doubt that his was a powerful voice.

Steps toward equality

Several civil rights milestones happened in the decade before the 1963 rally in Washington. Among them:

The U.S. Supreme Court said “separate but equal” schools for white and black children were illegal. Then Rosa Parks, who was black, refused to give up her bus seat to a white rider in Montgomery, Alabama. Her case and others led to a court ruling that segregation on buses was illegal.

Across the South, rallies were held to protest other forms of segregation, including keeping black people from voting. There were “sit-in” protests at segregated lunch counters, libraries, parks and other public places. In Birmingham, Alabama, police dogs and water cannons were turned on protesters; more than 1,000 people, including King, were arrested.

The nation was moving slowly — but not always willingly — toward treating the races equally, a process called integration. In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy called on Congress to pass a major civil rights bill giving all Americans access to public places and protecting the right to vote.

‘Freedom now’

Civil rights leaders and others got busy planning a big rally. They called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When the big day, August 28, arrived, thousands of marchers headed for the Mall. Many carried signs: “We Demand Equal Rights Now!” . . . “With Liberty and Justice for All!” . . . “Freedom Now.”

It was the largest civil rights march in history. Millions watched on television.

Several people spoke before King. Some were civil rights leaders; others were leaders of religious groups or groups of workers. Rosa Parks was introduced. Singers Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan performed.

The youngest speaker was 23-year-old John Lewis, who led a student activist group. Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, was angry about the slow pace of change in the country, and he wrote a speech that said so. That upset some people, so Lewis agreed to delete the harsh wording. That, in turn, upset other people. Because of this dispute, Lewis’s speech is the only one besides King’s that is still talked about.

Right after the march, King and others met with President Kennedy at the White House. The following July, they returned to watch the new president, Lyndon Johnson, sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And in August 1965, two years after they marched on Washington, the group came back. This time they stood under the Capitol dome as the president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, calling it “a triumph for freedom.”

The March on Washington had indeed changed history.

– Marylou Tousignant

To learn more

A Dream of Freedom by Diane McWhorter. Ages 11 to 14. Interviews with participants in the protests help bring the civil rights struggle to a personal level.

Marching to the Mountaintop by Ann Bausum. 104 pages. Ages 11 to 14. This book explores the civil rights protests — including violent ones — up to the time of King’s death.

Martin Luther King, Jr. by Kitson Jazynka. 48 pages. Ages 7 to 9. This easy reader with lots of photos is a good introduction to the King’s life.

The 1963 March on Washington by Jake Miller. 24 pages. Ages 8 to 12. Lots of photos and simple explanations of the issues make this a good introduction to the march.

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