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What do we get wrong about the March on Washington?

Three historians on the dangerous, radical, and inspirational event that defined the Civil Rights Movement

Marchers in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28 1963. Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd.Library of Congress

This piece was originally published on Aug. 28, 2022.

Today marks 60 years since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the most well-known in U.S. history, complex details about this march, its organizers, and its impact get left behind. The Emancipator sought out historians who bring complexity to this turning point in the story of the nation, helping us learn how our past affects our present and our future.

William Jones, Ph.D. is a historian of the 20th century United States at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

William Jones, professor of history, University of MinnesotaLisa Miller/University of Minnesota

Jones discusses how portraying the march as a nonviolent celebration of brotherhood hides just how radical it was.

“The ’63 march is remembered but I think only associated with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It’s often portrayed as a sort of peaceful demonstration of love and nonviolence. It was seen as a really dangerous event at the time. The National Guard was called out; all of the offices in Washington, D.C., closed on the day it took place. The army was staged and ready to come in with helicopters onto the National Mall and clear it out in anticipation of violence.

The demands were pretty radical. It made demands around immediate desegregation, suspending federal funding to any states that didn’t immediately desegregate. It called for an increase in the minimum wage that would in today’s dollars be [nearly $30] an hour. It called for a federal jobs creation program that would create jobs for anybody who wanted one.

It was really a very expansive set of demands.”

The success of the march brought a shift in political protesting, Jones says, popularizing the action of marching on the nation’s capital.

Thousands of people gathered on the National Mall during the Million Man March in Washington D.C., on Oct. 16, 1995.RICHARD ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

“The reason that we don’t see it as threatening anymore is because the ’63 march was peaceful, and they took a lot of effort to make it that way and to ensure that violence didn’t break out. The Nazi party went there to try to provoke people into conflict. And so the success of the march in some ways, made [future marches] seem less threatening.

And that’s why you see, in the ’60s, and in the ’70s, especially, the antiwar marches, the Vietnam antiwar marches, they were huge, and lots of people went to them. And it became this sort of normalized thing, like what you do when you want to call attention to an issue – you go and march on Washington. That wasn’t really the way people saw it before that.”

Adriane Lentz-Smith, Ph.D., is a scholar of African American history at Duke University. She is the author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.”

Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history, Duke UniversityDuke University

Lentz-Smith discusses the march’s place in the larger civil rights movement, particularly the March on Washington Movement started by A. Philip Randolph in 1941.

“The ’63 march on Washington matters because it was a moment of mobilization in the midst of a larger movement, and the post-Brown [v. Board of Education] civil rights movement is only understandable as part of the larger Black freedom struggle.

Pulling back to the ’41 March on Washington conceived by A. Philip Randolph and organized by him and a bunch of other people, including Bayard Rustin, who would go on to be a close adviser to King – the ’41 movement is amazing because it tells you something about the serious strategic thinking of Black activists and labor activists in the lead up to World War II, and the way that they saw mobilization for World War II as an opportunity to protect and advance not just rights but opportunities for Black labor, and through Black labor, opportunities for other folks.

So Randolph wanted to do something that was largely Black-organized and Black-run that would put pressure on the Roosevelt administration, as the world mobilized for war and the U.S. was engaged in that. He wanted to bring 150,000 people to Washington, and I point out that it was the March on Washington movement because there were groups city-by-city of Black folks who got together to mobilize people to organize this to make it happen.

[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who was a smart politician, and a good negotiator, understood that this would be, in the parlance of now, a PR disaster, right, the optics would be horrible. So he negotiated with Randolph to call off the March on Washington itself, in exchange for an executive order that would ban racial discrimination in defense industry jobs that had federal contracts.

It was both symbolically and practically important because it was the federal government taking a stand against workplace discrimination. That allowed Black people access to all kinds of jobs that they would have struggled to get access to before.”

To Lentz-Smith, Freedom Summer of 1964, not the March on Washington, is the key moment of the mid-century civil rights movement. But the march was the most “camera capturable” moment, grabbing the nation’s attention, holding it today.

“Whatever the march meant in the moment, the way that it has come to be narrated to us, not just the students of history, but as Americans living through history, and the way that we’ve come to understand it does work, too.

We can see that because all of the marches that have followed in its wake use that same spot to make their claim. For me most recently, and in the broader context of the times, it’s thinking about the March on Washington alongside the Women’s March from a few years ago, and thinking that there’s a way in which it’s also come to be almost a pilgrimage site.

You’re going because you want to be seen and heard. But people also go because they want a narrative in which they’re part of larger struggles for the good of people beyond themselves. That’s kind of lovely and important. That’s kind of the American citizen part of me as opposed to the nitpicky historian.”

Laurie Green, Ph.D., researches the dynamics of power and ideas of mid-20th social justice movements at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of “Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle.”

Laurie Green, professor of history, University of Texas at AustinUniversity of Texas

Green discusses the history of the march and movement as a story of unity through disunity.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of the Southern Black young activists who were coming from the South and were in the trenches of working with people on voter registration in really dangerous contexts. Some of them were very recently in jail.

We know from John Lewis’ speech already that people in SNCC and CORE were very concerned about having this mass march, headed by King in particular, and felt like what they were doing was quite different. They did civil disobedience before the march started, so before that day, they really put their stamp on it. When the march happened and John Lewis gave his talk, that was the context.

People in SNCC, [Lewis’] colleagues, were really urging him to not give the watered down speech that he was getting pressured [to do] because of [President John F.] Kennedy, getting pressured by the organizers. But then he did give a more radical speech than was expected. So again, it can’t be underestimated that they were there and having this more militant presence.”

The Lincoln Memorial was not the first place King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Green says. He evoked this imagery two months earlier at a similar-sized event in Detroit. Later at the march, Black workers had conflicting feelings because they weren’t happy with union leaders.

“Because, of course, A. Philip Randolph was the instigator of the march: It was about jobs and freedom, and so people came with unions. Some of those union leaders were precisely the same people that Black workers – these are the bureaucrats that they were fighting against, for instance, in the UAW. So these were people these Black workers were very suspicious of, and they’re up on the dais also giving speeches.”

“A lot of workers were kind of frustrated.

When you look at the signs, you see they were mass-produced. The signs in the pictures people are carrying, it’s really exciting to see that, and at the same time, you can see they’re not handmade signs; they’re carrying a few renditions of the same signs. They were critical, feeling like they were being hemmed in.”

Marchers in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28 1963.Rowland Scherman/National Archives

The March on Washington was a galvanizing moment for other liberation movements, Green says.

“So we know Black people were there, and we know White people were there. And it was really important to have a presence of Whites really showing they were for the movement in the March on Washington: You don’t just read about us, you see it. That’s super important.

But there’s people who are invisible in these stories. What I understand from interviewing people recently is there were Latino people, and there were Native Americans who came and were so inspired and see that as the beginning of their participation in liberation movements.

They acknowledge that it’s this touchstone for them, this Black Freedom Movement, that makes them feel that they’re part of this, though they have their own stories. They have their own struggles. But they can do it, too. So that’s another piece of self-recognition, of coming together in a massive march on Washington, and being in this quarter of a million people.”

Alex LaSalvia is the Digital Producer for The Emancipator. He can be reached at alexla@bu.edu.