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The March on Washington in 1963: Definition, Facts & Date

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In August 1963, a quarter of a million Americans rallied for civil rights in the nation's capital. Learn about the March on Washington and its historical impact, and check yourself with a quiz.

Background to the March

Close your eyes and visualize a group of 250,000 people. What would that look like? How much space would they take up? How in the world could anyone coordinate the movement of a quarter of a million people? One thing's for sure: A group of 250,000 would be a major attention-getter.

In 1963, the country's eyes were on Washington, D.C., where 250,000 Americans rallied in support of civil rights. But first, a little background.

Though school desegregation rulings, the sit-in movement, and other efforts by activists had brought increased attention to the discrimination against African-Americans, major federal civil rights legislation had stalled. Though President John F. Kennedy called for laws protecting voting rights and ending racial segregation in June 1963, southern Democrats blocked his efforts in Congress.

To break this logjam, several prominent civil rights organizations put aside their differences in order to plan the largest gathering in American history. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other groups such as labor unions.

The March

On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million black and white citizens of all ages drove, rode buses, and walked to Washington, D.C.; they were schoolchildren, union workers, teachers, clergy, and a variety of professionals. They strode down the Mall, arms linked, and chanted 'Equality Now!' and sang 'We Shall Overcome.'

Photograph of the March on Washington, showing crowds of people on the Mall, starting at the Lincoln Memorial, going around the Reflecting Pool, and continuing to the Washington Monument.
march on wash

They heard stirring speeches promoting the civil rights of African-Americans. They sang and danced to protest songs with a variety of entertainers, including Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The most powerful and remembered speech was that of Martin Luther King Jr. His 'I Have a Dream' speech touched on both Christian and American themes, and resonated across the country. 'In spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment,' King said, standing at the Lincoln Memorial, 'I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.'

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the SCLC, and Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, at the March on Washington
mlk march on wash

And then he said some of the most powerful words in American history: I believe '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.' Watching on TV at the White House, President Kennedy listened to King address the marchers and said to an aide, 'he's damn good.'

Impact of the March

The March on Washington was an amazing display of interracial cooperation and a powerful call for African-American civil rights. In many ways, it was the pinnacle of the civil rights movement, as it energized activists and pushed federal officials to finally act.

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