August 28, 1963: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom begins.

Fifty years ago, between 200,000 and 300,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. for a historic march that, 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, sought to bring national attention to the persistent problems faced by black Americans. Most were related to economic inequality, and others to disenfranchisement and segregation, and so the march was dubbed the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. At the time, the Kennedy Administration was taking steps to pass a civil rights bill, for which the march was also meant to show support, that was originally proposed to the American public by the president earlier that summer. This bill was eventually signed into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The demonstration was primarily led and coordinated by a coalition of different organizations and leaders: A. Philip Randolph, longtime civil rights activist and labor leader; James Farmer of CORE; John Lewis of SNCC; Martin Luther King, Jr. of the SCLC; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. Bayard Rustin, whose homosexuality was often attacked by other civil rights leaders and perceived as damaging to their cause, was the march’s chief organizer. Other influences perceived as too radical (communists, and anything that might have drawn demonstrators away from non-violent protest) were excluded as well. Phrases criticizing the federal government’s inaction, criticisms of the president’s civil rights bill, and mentions of revolution and “scorched earth” were cut from John Lewis’ speech, deemed too inflammatory.

Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream" speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, remains the defining moment of the march and a defining moment of the era. 

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