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August 21, 2013

The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington: The March on Washington and Its Impact

By Doug DuBrin, an English/history teacher as well as an editor and writer

Overview

Students will read Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and explore themes such as the social conditions in the U.S. that led to the civil-rights movement, King’s philosophy and practice of peaceful resistance, the immediate impact of the March on society at the time and the long-term significance of the March.

Time

One class period, plus extended activities

Background

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March sought to address the conditions under which most black Americans were living at the time and to facilitate “meaningful civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate integrated education.” (From the National Office of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.)

It was before this gathering that the day’s most prominent speaker, civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, considered one of the landmark pieces of rhetoric in American history.

The event itself was organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations, religious institutions and labor unions, including the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the National Urban League, the National Council of Churches, and the UAW (United Auto Workers).

In addition, popular artists such as Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed for the gathering.

However, various influential organizations and individuals opposed the March. Besides the expected, such as southern segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan, the black-separatist group Nation of Islam and its outspoken member, Malcolm X, adamantly disagreed with the peaceful intentions of the event.

President John F. Kennedy was initially opposed to the March as well, but not because of its ambitions. Kennedy was concerned that the event might exacerbate already heightened racial tensions across the country and perhaps erode the public support for the civil rights movement at large.

Nonetheless, the March on Washington proved to be an extraordinary success. It not only functioned as a plea for equality and justice; it also helped pave the way for both the ratification of the Twenty Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (outlawing the poll tax, a tax levied on individuals as a requirement for voting) and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (desegregating public institutions and outlawing employment discrimination).

Procedure

  1. Begin by supplying foundation material for the students via the NewsHour Extra article and the background explanation above.
  2. Have the students carefully read the entire speech either in small groups or individually. (You can additionally listen to the speech as a class)
  3. Ask the students to respond to the following questions:
    • What famous address by a U.S. president influenced “I Have a Dream”? (Answer: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). What specific supporting examples from that address resonate in King’s speech? (Answer: Among others, Lincoln begins with “Four score and seven years ago” and King with “Five score years”; Lincoln uses the term “hallow” in reference to the sanctity of the nation and its battlefields, and King refers to the place of the March as a “hallowed spot”; both speeches invoke the ideals of democracy in order to unify the public to a common cause.)
    • As mentioned above, King’s speech refers to the place of the March on Washington as a “hallowed,” or sacred, spot. What historical event is King referring to, and in what ways does the march echo that event? (Answer: Most notably, the end of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The March, like the Emancipation Proclamation, aspired to eliminate specific injustices in society.)
    • King also refers to the “promises of democracy” not being fulfilled in American society at the time. What would those promises be and in what ways were they not being fulfilled? (Answer: Among others, equality for all Americans regardless of sex, color, religion or creed. Of course, segregation laws as well as pervasive racism hindered the democratic ideal from being realized.)
    • The speech alludes to the laws at the time that segregated blacks from whites, particularly in schools, busses, restaurants, lodging facilities and public restrooms. These policies were collectively known as “separate but equal” and were ultimately dismantled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (see link above). What prevents “separate but equal” from being practiced fairly in society, and why must there be legislation to assure it is not practiced? On the other hand, could our society today practice such a policy fairly if it were what the majority of Americans wanted?
    • An additional line from “I Have a Dream” states that, “we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” King was deeply committed to a philosophy of nonviolent protest. What renowned leaders from the past held a similar view? (Answer: Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, among others.)
    • Malcolm X, unlike King, believed that violence was necessary to facilitate change in the prejudicial policies of society. When, if ever, do you see violence as necessary to correct injustices?
  4. Discuss the responses as a class.

Extension Activity

The March on Washington has inspired a great number of subsequent protests, such as the Million Man March and the Million Mom March. As a larger activity, have your students plan a new march (either as a class or in small groups) that would appeal to correct an existing injustice in society. Questions to guide the planning may include:

  • What is the specific nature of the injustice? (Cultural racism, institutional sexism, governmental policies aimed at minors, environmental destruction, etc.)
  • To whom would you be appealing for change? (Congress, the White House, the general population, etc.)
  • What are your specific demands, and how should they be addressed? (Reform of existing laws, monetary compensation, acknowledgment of the problem, etc.)
  • Who would speak at your march and why? (Certain entertainers, politicians, activists, etc.)
  • How would you communicate the message of your march? (Internet, mailings, grassroots campaigns, radio, etc.)
  • What groups do you think might counter-protest your march?
  • What other obstacles do you foresee in both the process of planning as well as the march itself?
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  • Common Core Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.9 Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9 Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

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