March on Washington: Dreams met and unfulfilled

Scholars and activists reflect on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

It was 7 a.m., and Jules Bernstein was worried. 

The city was quiet, and the lawn around the Washington Memorial was nearly empty. They were anticipating tens of thousands of people — what if no one came?

“Maybe we were dreaming that we would have a lot of people,” recalls Bernstein ’57. 

Then thousands began streaming in, and Bernstein and his fellow organizers breathed a sigh of relief.  The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had begun. 

More than 250,000 people came together on Aug. 28, 1963, a hot, humid day in Washington, D.C. They came to protest economic inequality, segregation and the brutal treatment of African Americans in towns and cities across America. 

“We never dreamed that 50 years later the march would be celebrated,” says Bernstein, who was a lawyer for the 1.5 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters at the time and a marshal at the march. “We were doing what we were supposed to do. We were engaged in civil rights, hoping that we would achieve something good.”

They did. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is credited with pressuring Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As celebrations and commemorations take place today, it is important to remember the march in its historical context, says Chad Williams, associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department. “What happened in August 1963 was a culmination and an important moment in the much longer history of civil rights activism and struggles for a black freedom,” Williams says. 

The 1963 march was the largest civil rights protest in American history, but it was by no means the first. Marches in 1917, 1922 and 1933 drew thousands of people in New York City and Washington, D.C.  

In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin — the duo who would organize the 1963 march —promised to bring 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. unless President Roosevelt took action against discrimination in the defense industry. The administration was so terrified of the prospect that it signed an executive order to ban discriminatory hiring among military contractors, Williams says.  

Randolph and Rustin joined forces again in 1957 for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, a march that brought 25,000 people to Washington, D.C. and introduced a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to a national audience. 

By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement had grown steadily. Young black men and women challenged segregation in schools and at lunch counters. Freedom Riders pushed into the deep South and were welcomed with violent mobs. Randolph and Rustin capitalized on national outrage and frustration to build momentum for a new march on Washington.

In the months leading up to the march, King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham; Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed high-powered fire hoses and police dogs on protesters in Birmingham, in full view of national and international news cameras; and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway.

“Many realized that this was a time to put pressure on the federal government and the Kennedy administration to not only pass a civil rights bill but to create a broader agenda for economic, social and racial justice in the country,” Williams says.

Today, that broad agenda is often lost in the shadow of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, but that day, marchers carried signs demanding not only civil rights but also decent housing, a higher minimum wage, economic equality and jobs. 

“In some ways, the march is unfulfilled,” says Bernstein. “It was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A lot of the freedom was achieved but when it came to jobs we did not succeed. That is where the struggle remains today.”

The March on Washington propelled civil rights into the national conscience, says President Frederick Lawrence, a noted civil rights attorney. “The March on Washington made clear that civil rights was not a regional cause, but a national cause. It made clear that civil rights was an American cause rooted in America's founding,” Lawrence says. 

In many ways, that day — and King’s speech in particular — shaped how many Americans understand civil rights.  But, as the events of this summer prove, there is still a long way to go, Williams says. “Issues of race and social justice still remain highly relevant,” he says, citing the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act and acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. 

“It is nothing short of extraordinary how much has been accomplished in that half century,” says Lawrence. “But, there is much more to be done as we continue to work to build a multi-ethnic society that provides to all its citizens the opportunity to achieve their full potential and to actualize all their gifts.”

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