Tuesday, January 28, 2020
The 1963 March on Washington
By Yussuf Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published January 15, 2009

"There Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I-Have-A-Dream" Speech"

The 1963 March on Washington drew a crowd of over 250,000 people and it heralded the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was there in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and facing the Washington Monument that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the world and ushered in a new reality for America relative to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged–particularly Black people–the masses who had been cast aside and disregarded by those who were in power.

The significance of the March is that it was the largest civil rights rally up to that date in the United States, an unprecedented gathering of Blacks and Whites exposing society's ills and demanding that the government enforce the laws equally to protect all its citizens regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, ethnicity or any other superficial differences that had been place by human beings on other human beings.

Though Dr. King (Southern Christian Leadership Conference -SCLC) gave the main address, the March was a combined effort of many organizations and community leaders including Whitney Young (the Urban League), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-NAACP), A. Phillip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality-CORE), John Lewis (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee-SNCC), Bayard Rustin (member of SCLC and CORE) and Walter Reuther (United Auto Workers -UAW).

It was also a fulfillment of marches that had been planned, but though some had been aborted; they were smaller and not as well organized but of equal significance, including a march in Detroit of 125,000 people; a previous march in Washington in 1958 where Mrs. Coretta Scott King was one of the main speakers; protest marches in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Albany, Georgia, and another March on Washington that had been planned by Randolph in 1941.

During that historical march, many speakers addressed the gathering but the most compelling and spellbinding speech was that of Dr. King's. It was etched into the American psyche and has remained a lasting legacy to his work, dreams and aspirations for his nation. "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed," he said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." The tone of his delivery left no doubt that the purpose of the speeches were to dramatize the scope of Black people's discontent and the enormous appeal of an open, desegregated society. "I have a dream–a dream deeply rooted in the American dream–a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." (Many believe that the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States is a fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. And ironically, Dr. King's birthday and Obama's inauguration are being jointly celebrated since the former will be officially observed one day before the latter). The death of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, one of the great Black scholars of the 20th century, who had migrated to Ghana, was announced at the March.

After the March, Dr. King and the others met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House, and the significance of the event was not readily apparent then. The significance came later through the changes that resulted throughout the nation at all levels of society. As a nation, Dr. King spoke about the need to live out the creed written in the U.S. Constitution: "all men are created equal." And though civil rights and voting rights law were passed by the Congress to address the issues that brought the marchers to Washington, aggressive enforcement of existing laws would have accomplished the same. Laws passed without active enforcement result in a lack of progress and social emptiness in society.

One of Dr. King's strongest weapons in his arsenal of persuasion was his belief in non-violence. He led the March on Washington and the entire event was free of any altercation or violence–violence that would have lessened the impact of his message. The extent of the effectiveness of non-violence on a large scale had also passed the test and it showed that a demand-for-freedom march with members of a diverse segment of society, including the church, organized labor, business, professional and entertainment, could take part successfully. Dr. King believed and lived according to his belief that "love would conquer all."

About three months after the March, President Kennedy was killed by a sniper's bullet while riding in a motorcade. It was a time of sorrow and it seemed that the expectations of March would fade away. However, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, followed his predecessor and reinforced Dr. King's expectations relative to the civil rights and voting rights.

The rest of the 1960s was a time of massive civil unrest and has been referred to as the turbulent 60s. Even though subsequent events throughout the nation's inner cities did not result from the March–which was peaceful–Dr. King felt that his message of non-violence did not seem to be getting through. The foundation of his message was rooted in the biblical and "Gandhian" traditions of peace, love and the brotherhood of mankind, yet events all around him, and indeed around the world, gave a different picture.

In addition to it being a culmination of past large scale attempts, the March was also a harbinger of things to come in the future. There had been Civil Rights Acts (CRA) dating as far back as 1866 and 1875, and as recent as 1957 and 1960. The CRA of 1866 was designed to protect the freed slaves from the Black Codes and other repressive legislation. The CRA of 1875 prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodation. The CRA of 1957 and 1960 "gained some steam" though they essentially rehashed those previously enacted with a little more meaningful federal enforcement. It appeared that within the context of the Black experience, as the protests and the demonstrations got louder and greater in numbers, the more open society became to the Black masses.

By the time the March on Washington was over, legislators had already begun to draft "more" laws to respond to cause that was long overdue. But as Dr. King had so skillfully articulated, "You cannot legislate morality; the law can't make you love me, but it can prevent you from lynching me and I think that's important." The evils against Black people were moral failings and no amount of legislation could have corrected them. At the beginning, the Constitution proclaimed: "all men are created equal," but were they really? Men are only equal under the law, which coincidentally other men interpret and enforce.

The significance of the March on Washington was in what it achieved afterwards particularly the laws that were enacted and enforced, from civil rights to voting rights to human rights. It also achieved changes in men and women's hearts and minds, and that was its greatest achievement.


Categories: Legends

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