50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

28 Aug
Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we celebrate by showcasing some of the documents, photos, and speeches from this event that was a highlight of the civil rights movement.

The line up of speakers and singers showcased great singers including Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, but the music and singing often spilled out to the crowd as well. This clip complies all of the recorded performances from that day and gives the viewer a feeling for crowd’s participation as well.

The program lists Myrile Evers as speaking but in the end she did not speak. Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist who played a major role in the Little Rock School Integration crisis spoke, as did the famed singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

John Lewis, one of the youngest speakers that day, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and generated some controversy with his proposed speech. Lewis had circulated the text of his speech beforehand and was asked by some of the organizers of the speech to change the more militant sections. In his interview for Eyes on the Prize, Lewis talked about the speech and changed he made,

But I suggested that as a movement that we could not wait on the President on members of the Congress. We had to take matters into our own hand, and went on to say that, that the day might come when we would not confine our marching on Washington, where we might be forced to march through the south the way Sherman did, nonviolently. And some of the people suggested that was inflammatory, that would call people to riot, and you shouldn’t use that type of language. And Mr. Randolph really came to my defense…But even after we got, after we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, people had problems with some of the changes. The use of the word “revolution.” I used “revolution” in it, the word revolution in the speech, at least once, the word “masses.”

I said in, in one part of the speech, “We are involved in a serious revolution.” I remember that very well. “The revolution is at, is at hand. The masses are on the march” or something like that. People, they couldn’t deal with that. And it was, you know, it’s nothing. You look back on it, and, and in 1965, all of that, what we tried to suggest in that speech on the concern of voting rights, came to pass. The people in Selma, the people in Mississippi, made it real through the Voting Rights Act. And you know, all of the things that SNCC predicted and projected during that period came to pass in the Voter Rights Act 1965. And, but for that, you know, day, it was, tended to be looked upon as being radical and extreme.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 14, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The march culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr’s rousing and inspiring “I Have A Dream” speech. Reflecting the spontaneity of the day and the King’s skill as a speaker, the original text of the speech did not include the lines about the dream. King had done variations on that theme in previous speeches but had been told by his colleague Wyatt Tee Walker, and others, not to include it. In the moment though, when singer Mahalia Jackson called out for Martin to tell them about the dream. He did and spoke in soaring rhetoric and poetic terms that moved not only the people at the march but the radio and television audience that were broadcasting the speakers and proceedings of the march.

The speech was widely recognized as a masterpiece of rhetoric and was recently added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Drawing on numerous literary, biblical, and historical references, and using a repetition of lines that builds to an emotional high point, King’s words and delivery of the speech have a power that is still felt today.



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