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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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The March on Washington

August 1963

"Those... who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice."
—A. Philip Randolph, March organizer

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Soon after the events in Birmingham, civil rights leaders announce plans for a mass march in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for jobs and freedom. Attorney general Robert Kennedy, fearing more violence, is opposed to the plan. But long-time labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who first proposed such a march during Franklin Roosevelt's administration in 1941, and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the march's complex logistics, press ahead.

On August 28, more than 200,000 people gather in peace and unity on the National Mall. Behind the scenes, SNCC leader John Lewis' speech causes conflict for its harsh words against the Kennedy administration and the nation's slowness to correct injustices. Persuaded by the 75-year-old Randolph to tone down the rhetoric, Lewis delivers an amended speech and few know of the controversy. The speech that will go down in the history books, however, is the one delivered by Martin Luther King as he stands before the Lincoln Memorial. "I have a dream," he declares, "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..."

Though the March on Washington is a triumph, it comes with a tragic coda. Less than three weeks later, in Birmingham, the Ku Klux Klan bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Fifteen people are injured and four young girls are killed, filling many in the movement with rage. It will be 14 years before the first of three men, Robert Chambliss, is brought to justice in 1977; his companions Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Lee Cherry will not be convicted until 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Context

Other Events: Late 1963

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas on November 22; Vice President Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as president on board Air Force One.

California becomes the most populous state, overtaking New York.

New Hampshire establishes the first state lottery to help fund education.

"Little Stevie Wonder, the 12-Year-Old-Genius" is a top-selling album; Peter, Paul and Mary record "Blowin' in the Wind."

Betty Friedan writes The Feminine Mystique, helping kick off the women's rights movement.

Weight Watchers, the Kodak Instamatic camera, "The Amazing Spider Man," Valium, and the cassette tape all debut.

Press

The Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1963

Editorial: A Right and a Responsibility

There is no more basic right guaranteed by the Constitution than the freedom of "the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

In less than 24 hours, tens of thousands of Americans will exercise that right in a massive civil rights demonstration in Washington. Leaders of the extraordinary march on the nation's capital call it a "living petition."

The vast majority of their countrymen concur in demands for equality by Negroes and other minorities, and they deplore the inequities that have led to the civil rights march. But they are concerned -- as apparently are demonstration officials -- that the march could somehow miscarry, that the very numbers participating will make it vulnerable to disorder...

...A demonstration that falls into violence would be disastrous, but even a well-ordered march is not likely to change the position of Congress members, pro or con, on the President's civil rights proposals. And although proper federal legislation will be helpful, the main fight to end discrimination must still be waged at the local and state level.

The New York Times, August 29, 1963

Editorial: Equality is Their Right

The huge assemblage of Negro and white citizens in Washington yesterday to demand equality in all aspects of American life embodied, in concept and in execution, the noblest tradition of our democracy. It reflected their conviction that, if enough of the people demonstrate that they care enough, no force in the United States is more powerful than an appeal to conscience and basic morality.

They massed, 200,000 strong, at the Lincoln Memorial beside the seated figure of the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation a century ago...

...The discipline maintained by the civil rights pilgrims was as impressive as their dedication. That so vast a movement could be carried out with such decorum is a tribute to the responsibility of both leaders and followers...

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 30, 1963

Editorial: Massing Precedent

Negroes in and out of Washington who assembled in the estimated number of 200,000 in the capital are to be congratulated for their orderliness, and celerity of departure. There was, however, no telling, at any time, what might happen; there is no telling to what extent similar massive gatherings, with or without governmental encouragement, with or without peaceful intent, to whatever end or with whatever motive, will become a fixture in the mechanics of trying to get what you want in the way of legislation...

The New York Times, August 30, 1963

Editorial: After the March is Over

...The national conscience, most potent of all spurs to social action, has been stirred in ways that will find expression in laws and in community practice. The only question is whether the translation of attitude into action will come fast enough to prevent new explosions of interracial violence.

The unity of Negro and white citizens in the leadership of the march and in its rank and file demonstrated the indivisibility of the fight for genuine equality in all phases of American affairs. It was a rebuke to those in both races -- the White Citizens Councils and the Black Muslims -- who favor a pulling-apart instead of a pulling-together...

The Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1963

Letters to the Editor: The March

...Without exception, this was the most outstanding, finest, most wonderful group of Americans which ever assembled voluntarily for anything. They were of the stuff which made this country great.

John J. Walsh
Chicago

The litter and debris thrown about the grounds near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is a disgrace and certainly no credit to the freedom marchers. If these people want to be accepted, they must also show some responsibility.

Disgusted Taxpayer
Chicago

Music

We Shall Overcome
Songwriter: Baptist hymn adapted by Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger
Performed by: n/a
Listen to the Music

"'We Shall Overcome.' That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?" -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the March on Washington, legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson led participants in this song, signaling the unity among the moderate members of the SCLC and the more radical young leaders of SNCC.

One of the movement's touchstone songs, it had its own performance ritual. At the end of many demonstrations and meetings, participants would cross their arms across their chests and hold hands with their neighbors, swaying as they sang. The history of the song, however, belies the idea of a standard performance.

Originally known as "I'll Be All Right" and then "I'll Overcome Someday" the song had been sung in black churches since the turn of the 20th century. In the 1940s, union workers sang the song during strikes, changing the words to the collective "We will overcome." Pete Seeger soon changed the verb from "will" to "shall" -- supposedly to get a more singable vowel sound, but also to invoke the language of the King James Bible.

When President Lyndon Johnson later quoted the song in a televised speech about the Voting Rights Act, some saw it as proof of freedom songs' power. Others felt that the song had been co-opted and was no longer effective.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

The March on Washington
Part 1
Duration: (3:08) min
Watch the Video
Part 2
Duration: (14:29) min
Watch the Video

As a narrator describes where the marchers are coming from, footage shows buses driving at night towards Washington. The next clips show march organizers getting ready, preparing security, and putting together signs and placards.

Then, clips show organizers putting together some 80,000 cheese sandwiches to feed marchers. Participants sing "We Shall Overcome" as they prepare, demonstrating how music served as a unifying force in the movement.

The next clip shows the empty area around the Lincoln Memorial on the morning of the march, then footage of crowds arriving. As the assembly grows, performers like Odetta, seen in the video, and Bob Dylan perform.

Then, after clips of marchers, a view of the now-filled Mall is shown.

The next clip is of A. Phillip Randolph speaking, calling the mass of peaceful demonstrators "the advance guard of a moral revolution."

He is followed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering one of the most famous speeches in American history. Footage of his "I Have a Dream" speech is interspersed with footage of marchers listening and applauding. King uses many rhetorical techniques, including repetition of key ideas -- "we can never be satisfied" -- and metaphor -- "until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream." His commanding voice starts low but builds to a crescendo. "I have a dream," he repeats, and again this starting point takes him to moving and memorable phrases like "judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character."

Next, Walter Cronkite describes President John Kennedy's favorable reaction to the march, followed by footage of march leaders meeting with him at the White House.

The last clip is A. Phillip Randolph describing the historic nature of the march, after which footage is shown of buses leaving Washington carrying sleeping riders.

Footage courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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