The peaceful march drew more than 200,000 people to Washington on a sweltering summer day. It is rightly remembered as one of the most uplifting moments of the civil rights movement, and as others have said, it is the most famous mass rally in U.S. history.
But as the nation prepares to commemorate the event, it is useful to recall its origins, ambitions and legacy and to remember which of the organizers’ objectives have been fulfilled and which have not.
The country has made significant racial progress since the March on Washington. When President Obama gives an address Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the event, his mere presence will speak volumes about the racial barriers that have been broken. As he has acknowledged, he owes a debt to those who fought for the rights that made his presidency possible.
Some of those gains began with the passage of legislation in the years immediately after the march. That included laws banning discrimination in public accommodations and housing and protecting voting rights for African Americans, although other events contributed much to the climate that brought about passage of those measures.
But for all that progress, sizable gaps remain between white and black America, especially in areas of wealth, income, poverty and economic opportunity. Those challenges, as much as the successes of the civil rights movement, are likely to be brought back to the forefront this week. Whether that stimulates renewed debate on the causes and possible cures remains in question.
The 1963 march was the result of the confluence of two ambitions. The idea for it originated with Randolph, who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor organization and had pressed for decades to improve the economic plight of an impoverished black population. But the event took shape in the aftermath of demonstrations led by King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in the spring of 1963 in the segregated city of Birmingham, Ala.
The Birmingham demonstrations turned violent when Bull Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner, ordered police to set upon the demonstrators with snarling dogs and high-powered fire hoses. Television networks and newspapers carried images and reports from Birmingham that spread outrage nationwide.