On 28 August 1963 people from many walks of life came together for the March on Washington. Their aim was to change federal law towards justice for African Americans.

The Controversy around the March on Washington

There was much dispute among the organisers about the actions and speeches for the March on Washington. Today the march is the maybe most known event of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. However, other actions had much more results for the African-American struggle for equality.

Why a march on Washington?

In 1963 one major goal for the civil rights organisations was a federal law that erased all the segregationist and racist rules that harmed African-Americans. The past decade had seen several changes in legislation. In 1954 federal law banned school segregation and in 1956 segregation on public transport. However, on the ground most schools still were segregated and African-Americans could not travel safely. Furthermore it would take ages to change every aspect of law separately.

So the idea grew to go to Washington and demand of Congress a national law to end all the injustice. Actually activists have become frustrated because Congress for years had not acted. This is why their second plan was to convince president Kennedy that he pushed Congress to vote for new laws. President Kennedy was a Democrat and at the time Democrats hold majorities both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

The leaders

In the early 1960s the leaders of the major civil rights organisations came together to put their idea into reality. These were:

The director of the March became yet another man: A. Phillip Randolph, who has had a similar idea twenty years earlier. In 1963 he was 74 years old, a decade long labour activist fighting for justice in the workplace and thus an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. It was Randolph and the unionists who stressed that economic justice was equally important as civil rights and thus the march became the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”.

Friction among the civil rights groups

The civil rights leaders had great disputes on how to take action in Washington. The friction went between the older organisations (NAACP, SCLC, NUL, NCNW) with Martin Luther King as the most prominent leader and the younger activists of CORE and SNCC. CORE and SNCC aimed for actions of civil disobedience like blocking important roads or doing sit-ins in the offices of Congress members. Contrarily the more established groups had a peaceful rally in mind, filled with prayers and hope.

For King and his allies the worry about violence was pivotal. The organisers expected over 100,000 people from many different walks of life. Plus the nation’s eyes would be on the event via TV. Never before was there such a huge gathering of people within the Civil Rights Movement. If people turned to violence, the SCLC argued, all the movement’s achievements would be destroyed. The march should show the dignity, responsibility and discipline of African-Americans as well as their commitment to non-violence. This was the way to fight white prejudice. In the end the older activists prevailed and the march became the peaceful gathering they had imagined.

Just on the day of the march, 28 August 1963, the friction again became evident. John Lewis, leader of SNCC, had prepared a speech the others didn’t approve of. Lewis stated that politicians didn’t act and that people should not wait any longer but take things into their own hands. To the older activists this sounded like confrontation when their goal was to convince the elected to stand up for justice. Furthermore King and the others were sure that those more radical ideas would be used as an excuse not to support civil rights for all. Whites would have arguments that blacks were a danger to American society. At this time it was crucial to demonstrate the moral superiority of African-Americans fighting for justice. After a heated discussion the much respected A. Phillip Randolph convinced or made Lewis change his speech. Just hours before the march started.

See for yourself the march’s program.

Malcolm X: “Farce on Washington”

Today the March on Washington unanimously is part of American history but in 1963 there was much criticism. The maybe most prominent and outspoken critic was Malcolm X. In his autobiography he called the march the “Farce on Washington”. For several reasons: First of all because the more established groups forbade all actions of civil disobedience. Speeches only would not have any effect. Secondly the major donor was a white man and with money comes influence. Thirdly, the Kennedy administration also had its share in shaping the event. President Kennedy had at first opposed a March on Washington. But after meeting with the leaders and the guarantee that the March would not include any acts of civil disobedience the administration even endorsed the event. Malcolm X argued that the march had become a chic picnic to attend and not a powerful protest.

Achievements of the march

Did the March on Washington achieve its goal of changing federal law? In hindsight civil rights leaders like Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer wrote that the march achieved – nothing. Congressmen and -women did not call for a bill because of King’s speech that people today know so well.
It might have had an effect on the Nation’s conscience as the march was the first action on a national scale. Many people in front of their TVs saw the dignity, eloquence and skill of African-Americans, an unusual thing in the 1960s. But there was no impact on legislation.

What indeed brought changes like the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was to expose the racist laws in the South through sit-ins, freedom rides and boycotting white businesses. Actions the many ordinary people participated in. People who were ready to endure bullying, beatings, injuries, imprisonment. Some paid with their lives. These sacrifices brought change, not the gathering of 250,000 people in Washington that is so famous today.

I think, today the Civil Rights Movement is unrightfully dominated by the March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech. This single, not even influential event, does not do the movement justice. No doubt King held a great speech but it is far more important to learn about the actions that brought change and lessened oppression.

How to get there

Lincoln Memorial – from where the leaders delivered their speeches
National Mall – where the march’s participants gathered

closest Subway Station: Federal Triangle (Orange Line, Silver Line, Blue Line)
Though I recommend you go to Capitol Hill and walk an hour to the Lincoln Memorial (Subway Capitol South or Union Station).


Clayborne Carson: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2001
James Farmer: Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, 1985
Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, 1965
Ralph Abernathy: And the walls came tumbling down, 1989
Manning Marable, Leith Mullings, Sophie Spencer-Wood: Freedom. A Photographic History of the African American Struggle, 2002

Image Credit

Button: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “March on Washington for jobs & freedom, August 28, 1963” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1963.
Source Link at New York Public Library

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *