The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the March on Washington, or The Great March on Washington, was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history and demanded civil and economic rights for African Americans. Tens of thousands of people headed to Washington D.C. on Tuesday August 27, 1963, and on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, the “march” officially took place culminating in a rally on the mall with speeches and songs. The final scheduled speaker of the rally was Martin Luther King, Jr. who, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his now historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who built an alliance of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations that came together under the banner of “jobs and freedom.” Estimates of the number of participants varied from 200,000 to 300,000. The most widely cited estimate is 250,000 people. Observers estimated that 75–80% of the marchers were Black, which means that a substantial number of marchers were White. The march is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and preceded the Selma Voting Rights Movement which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
OK, if you know your history this is old news to you. If you were alive at the time and living in the US it is even older news, and should be a powerful memory. I was alive at the time but living in Australia, so the event had no impact on me when it happened. When JFK was assassinated later that same year, it made the headlines and I took notice. Segregation in the US, and other Civil Rights problems worldwide, such as apartheid, were what they were and we debated them in school occasionally (in the abstract). Australia had its own racist policies and problems, but they did not have much impact on me. My town was a heavily White town, populated by European immigrants or people of European descent. There were aborigines living there, and some attended my school. Australia’s racial problems, that eventually exploded, had to do with colonization, not slavery, so I could not relate to racism in the US until I moved there.
To be clear, I’ll use the words “Black” and “White” (both capitalized) for simplicity, not because I think the terms are unambiguous or neutral. Words matter, and sensitivities change over time. Martin Luther King was comfortable using the word “negro,” but it’s offensive to many now. Also to be clear, “race” is a cultural term not a biological one. There is ZERO way to define race biologically. The term “race” can only refer to how you identify yourself, not what your biology reveals about you. One more thing to be clear (especially in light of current political tensions in the US), if you think the color of a person’s skin has ANYTHING to do about ANYTHING (except degree of pigmentation), you are a racist.
The background and content of the March is now mostly forgotten or overshadowed by the lingering legacy of “I Have a Dream” and King’s murder. The organizers themselves disagreed over the purpose of the march. The NAACP and Urban League saw it as a gesture of support for a civil rights bill that had been introduced by the Kennedy Administration. Randolph, King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw it as a way of raising both civil rights and economic issues to national attention beyond the Kennedy bill. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) saw it as a way of challenging and condemning the Kennedy administration’s inaction and lack of concrete support for civil rights.
Despite their disagreements, the group came together on a set of goals:
Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation;
Immediate elimination of school segregation;
A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed;
A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;
Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination;
Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens;
A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas;
Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.
Although in years past, Randolph had supported “Negro only” marches, partly to reduce the impression that the civil rights movement was dominated by White communists, organizers in 1963 agreed that Whites and Blacks marching side by side would create a more powerful image.
The Kennedy Administration cooperated with the organizers in planning the March, and one member of the Justice Department was assigned as a full-time liaison. Chicago and New York City (as well as some corporations) agreed to designate August 28 as “Freedom Day” and give workers the day off. The march was not universally supported among civil rights activists. Some, including Rustin (who assembled 4,000 volunteer marshals from New York), were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement. The march was condemned by Malcolm X, at the time spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who termed it the “farce on Washington”
Organizers pushed hard for an expensive ($16,000) sound system, saying, “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” The system was obtained and set up at the Lincoln Memorial, but was sabotaged on the day before the March and its operators were unable to repair it. They contacted Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his civil rights liaison Burke Marshall, demanding that the government fix the system. Organizers reportedly told them: “We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” The system was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
The march commanded national attention by preempting regularly scheduled television programs. As the first ceremony of such magnitude ever initiated and dominated by Blacks in the US, the march also was the first to have its nature wholly misperceived in advance. Dominant expectations ran from paternal apprehension to dread. On Meet the Press, reporters grilled Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King about widespread foreboding that “it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.” Life magazine declared that the capital was suffering “its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.” The Pentagon readied 19,000 troops in the suburbs and the jails shifted inmates to other prisons to make room for those arrested in mass arrests; the city banned all sales of alcoholic beverages; hospitals made room for riot casualties by postponing elective surgery. With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly larger than the Kennedy inauguration two years earlier.
This is the full agenda for the day (click to enlarge):
You can see that there was a lot going on, and King’s speech capped a very full event. Here’s footage of the speech beginning with some images of participants:
Analysis of the speech has pretty well been done to death. It’s hailed as a “masterpiece of rhetoric” etc etc. Stripped of its context I don’t see it as any great piece of brilliant oratory. It’s more or less stock stuff I’ve heard from countless Southern preachers with way too much metaphor for my tastes. It’s been well documented, also, that King had delivered similar speeches before. The point that grabs my attention is that if you watch the video, and don’t just hear the words or read them, you see the key transition. He starts out reading a prepared speech and he glances between it and the crowd. But then he gets to the “I have a dream” section and his prepared speech is in the dust. From then on he speaks from the soul. Supposedly the switch happened when Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Who knows what the speech would have been like if not for that moment?
Of course, the context is all important. People had been traveling days under harsh conditions, the city and the nation were on edge, people had been singing and praying, followed by countless speeches . . . and then King took the stage, and he electrified the crowd and the nation. His speech was a turning point. Even though JFK was assassinated, LBJ kept up the pressure and got key legislation through congress, and leaned on states to pass civil rights laws.
Wouldn’t it be nice if passing laws changed people overnight? Racist laws got struck down, but racism remained . . . and still remains in the US. It’s depressing to think that we are more than 50 years on from the March and we still have to contend with rampant racism, even though there’s a fair element of the privileged White who want to deny its existence.
It’s very easy to sound racist when recommending food for today, so, instead I give you this site that a Black woman from Tennessee posted:
There’s plenty here to chew on. Her claim is that King enjoyed fried chicken with collards, black-eyed peas, and corn bread on Sundays, growing up in Atlanta. Sounds good to me.
This comes from the site:
Time to hit the kitchen.
Blackeyed peas can be one of the greatest southern foods you will ever be fortunate enough to put in your mouth. We make an insanely delicious version that is known as Hoppin’ John.
Growing up in Kentucky means you better have a good fried chicken recipe in your arsenal. This is one of the best ones we’ve ever implemented.
Collard greens is another southern staple. We’ve never penned a recipe, cause they are so easy to cook it’s just silly. First and most important, you’ll need a pint of pork stock. This is crucial. Here’s how we make it.
After you have your pork stock ready prep four bunches of collards by washing thoroughly and roughly chopping. Bring pint of pork stock to boil and place collards in kettle. Simmer with lid off til collards are done. You may like them al dente, but we like them “cooked down” which is to say extremely tender. By this time your stock should be almost completely evaporated. Add one cup whipping cream and 1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes to kettle. Cook 20 minutes more. You now have creamy, spicy collards that are so deliciously piggy they will turn even the most ardent hater of greens into a stark raving mad collard green addict.
Cornbread. Once again, we’ve never penned a corn bread recipe cause we can make a pone in our sleep. We’ve done it a thousand times. Here’s a quick primer. Take a cup of self rising corn meal. Add buttermilk til thick batter forms, now add tap water til batter is runny, pour into cold, greased (we use clarified bacon fat) cast iron pan, bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.
There are links within the text to recipes. One caution – having a recipe isn’t all you need. To make great Southern fried chicken you have to be born knowing how to make it. My wife was born in Kentucky and made excellent fried chicken. But she always bowed to her mother whose fried chicken was, indeed, superb. There are a few “secrets” that cooks swear by – such as soaking the chicken pieces overnight in buttermilk – but when it comes down to it, experience is what matters.