Things You Didn't Know About The March On Washington (1963)

By | August 25, 2020

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(Center for Jewish History, NYC/Wikimedia Commons)

If there's one thing that everyone knows about the March on Washington, it's that it was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. They probably know even more—it was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement, some of the biggest names in hippie music performed there, it was in Washington—but it wasn't the big kumbaya moment it's presented as in the history books. Backroom deals, annoyed government officials, and bad vibes throughout the day all threatened to derail the good intentions of Dr. King. The fact that the march even happened, let alone became one of the most important moments in the Civil Rights movement, is astounding.

A Long Time Coming

The March on Washington seems like a quintessentially '60s moment, but it had been brewing for decades. In fact, it almost happened in 1941, when A. Philip Randolph (the president of both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council and vice president of the AFL-CIO) called for 100,000 black Americans to march on the nation's capital in protest of segregation and discrimination. The march would have taken place on July 1, 1941, but before it could happen, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, creating the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and becoming the first federal mandate for fair hiring in the defense industry. For a minute, it seemed like the march might not be necessary.

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(United States Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons)

The Big Six

In the early '60s, the growing divide between black and white America and the prevailing conviction that the Kennedy administration didn't understand the plight of black Americans soon dispelled that hope, and a new march was planned by Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Initially, it was going to be two days long and include sit-ins as well as a huge rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

By June 1963, Randolph and Rustin had gained the support of multiple organizations and formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, whose leaders became known as the "Big Six": Randolph, James Farmer, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King, Jr.