Twice in American history, more than twenty years apart, a March on Washington was planned, each intended to dramatize the right of black Americans to political and economic equality.
The first march was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Blacks had benefited less than other groups from New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by fifty thousand people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by any defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination. The March on Washington was then canceled. Nearly 2 million blacks were employed in defense work by the end of 1944. Order 8802 represented a limited victory, however; the fepc went out of existence in 1946.
The March on Washington
As blacks faced continuing discrimination in the postwar years, the March on Washington group met annually to reiterate blacks’ demands for economic equality. The civil rights movement of the 1960s transformed the political climate, and in 1963, black leaders began to plan a new March on Washington, designed specifically to advocate passage of the Civil Rights Act then stalled in Congress. Chaired again by A. Philip Randolph and organized by his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, this new March for Jobs and Freedom was expected to attract 100,000 participants. President John F. Kennedy showed as little enthusiasm for the march as had Roosevelt, but this time the black leaders would not be dissuaded. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their long-standing rivalry, black and white groups across the country were urged to attend, and elaborate arrangements were made to ensure a harmonious event. The growing disillusion among some civil rights workers was reflected in a speech planned by John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but in order to preserve the atmosphere of goodwill, leaders of the march persuaded Lewis to omit his harshest criticisms of the Kennedy administration.
The march was an unprecedented success. More than 200,000 black and white Americans shared a joyous day of speeches, songs, and prayers led by a celebrated array of clergymen, civil rights leaders, politicians, and entertainers. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s soaring address climaxed the day; through his eloquence, the phrase “I Have a Dream” became an expression of the highest aspirations of the civil rights movement.
Like its predecessor, the March on Washington of 1963 was followed by years of disillusion and racial strife. Nevertheless, both marches represented an affirmation of hope, of belief in the democratic process, and of faith in the capacity of blacks and whites to work together for racial equality.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.