By Moses Kamuiru
An excess of 200,000 Americans of all creeds gathered in Washington’s District of Columbia on the 28th of August 1963 for a political march for jobs and freedom which would later be known as the March on Washington. Organized by many religious groups and civil societies, the movement was designed to expose the social and political challenges continuously faced by African Americans across all of America. The March, which would later become a key milestone for the growing civil rights movement in the United States resulted in the timeless “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. which was a passionate call for equality and racial justice.
Two times in the history of America, more than two decades apart, the March on Washington was planned, each intended to address African American Rights to economic and political equality. Apart from the famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington saw performances and other speeches from Joan Baez, Josephine Baker, John Lewis, Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson.
The initial rally was in 1941 and was proposed by the president of the Brotherhood Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph. African Americans reaped less compared to other groups from the programs of the New Deal during the Great Depression, and they were excluded from defense jobs by the continuing discrimination based on race in the early 1940s. Randolph called for a March by 50,000 people when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed little inclination to act on the problem. A combination of the march and pressure from Randolph and his people pressured Roosevelt to yield and sign Executive Order 8802 in June of 1941. The executive order established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate racial discrimination charges and banned discrimination by any defense contractor. This led to over two million African Americans being hired in the defense industry by the end of 1944, and the march was canceled. However, the FEPC became obsolete in 1946, and Executive Order 8802 was viewed as a limited victory.
The group on the March on Washington continued to meet every year as blacks continued to face discrimination in the post-war years to address African Americans demand for political and economic equality. Black leaders began to plan a march on Washington in 1963 as the civil rights movement steadily transformed the political climate. The rally was engineered to pressure for the passage of the Civil Rights Act which was then stalled in Congress. Like Roosevelt before him, President Kennedy showed little enthusiasm for the March and black leaders would not be dissuaded this time round. Both Black and white groups across America were urged to attend, and arrangements were made to make certain of a successful event. The southern leadership conference and The National Association for Advancement of Colored People buried the hatchet for this cause.
This march was overwhelmingly successful and it was there where over 200,000 blacks and whites shared a day of songs, speeches, and prayers led by well-known and famous clergymen, politicians, entertainers, and civil rights leaders. The speech by Martin Luther King was the day’s climax as his “I Have a Dream” phrase became a statement for the civil rights movement’s highest aspirations. The March on Washington became an affirmation of belief and hope in the democratic process and in the possibility of both whites and blacks beginning to work collectively for racial equality.