It was on this day in 1963 that nearly a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington, DC for a peaceful demonstration to promote civil rights and economic equality for African Americans. Participants walked down Constitution and Independence Avenues, then--a century after the all-too-hollow rhetoric of the Emancipation Proclamation was proclaimed--gathered before the Lincoln Monument for speeches, songs, and prayer.
Televised live to an audience of millions, the march provided a number of dramatic moments--but the most memorable of all was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring I Have a Dream speech. Far larger than any other previous demonstration for any other cause, the march had an obvious and immediate impact, both on the passage of civil rights legislation and on nationwide public opinion. It proved the power of mass appeal and inspired imitators in the antiwar, pro-life, and environmental movements.
As early as 1941 Philip Randolph--international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO--had discussed the possibility of such a march. Thus, he was seen as the chief organizer. But because the march was also sponsored by five of the largest civil rights organizations in the United States, planning was complicated by dissention among the groups. Known in the press as "the big six," the leaders included Randolph and King as well as Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP, James Farmer, founder and president of the Congress of Racial Equality, and John Lewis, president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the end though, they were able to iron out their differences.
The marchers came in chartered buses and private cars, on trains and planes--one man even roller-skated to Washington from Chicago. By mid-day, more than 200,000 had gathered by the Washington Monument, where the march was to begin. It was a diverse crowd: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Hollywood stars and everyday people. Despite the fears that had prompted extraordinary precautions--including pre-signed Executive Orders authorizing military intervention in the case of rioting--the marchers walked peacefully to the Lincoln Monument.
Dr. King, the last speaker of the day, was introduced by Randolph as "the moral leader of our nation." His speech, eloquent on the page, was electrifying in person. With the passionate, poetic style he had honed in the pulpit, King stirred the audience and built to a extemporaneous crescendo, "I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
As marchers returned home, the organizers met with the president, who encouraged them to continue their work. By all counts, the march was a great success. But just three weeks later, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama--which killed four young girls--reminded all Americans that the dream had yet to be fully realized.