The Social History of the March on Washington

The March on Washington is one of the most significant events in the history of the nation. The event which took place on August 28, 1963 signified the true power that average citizens control when they come together with other citizens such as themselves to fight for a cause. The March on Washington became one of the defining moments, if not the defining moment, of the Civil Rights Movement as what was expected to be a decently sized gathering of people turned into a massive, peaceful protest. Although the March on Washington’s impact was a direct result of the large number of people involved, one of the key moments came after the crowd reached Washington, D.C. as Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech which became somewhat of an anthem for the entire Civil Rights Movement. The main reason for the March on Washington was to persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill that President Kennedy had sent them. The following year, possibly in reaction to the March on Washington, the bill was passed and became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the March on Washington was organized and ran by Civil Rights leaders, the crowd of average citizens was the true force in fighting for the equal rights they deserved.

The Civil Rights Movement brought about countless ways that African Americans fought for equal rights that they had struggled to earn since times of slavery. Strong, powerful African American men took control of the Civil Rights Movement in order to organize demonstrations and protests throughout the South. However, these Civil Rights leaders couldn’t get much accomplished on their own; they relied on the passion and desire of the citizens who longed for equal rights. As demonstrations heated up the struggle for equal rights in the South in early 1963, more involvement in the Civil Rights Movement began sprouting up throughout the nation. Eventually, on June 19, 1963, affected by the uprising of demonstrations, President Kennedy passed a bill on to Congress, which guaranteed the protection of equal rights for African Americans. With the passing of this bill on to Congress, the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement saw their work beginning to pay off and knew that this was their opportunity to finally earn what they had been fighting for.

In order to convince Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement planned the March on Washington to demonstrate that they weren’t going to give up the struggle. Setting the goal high, the March on Washington hoped to include approximately 100,000 demonstrators throughout the nation. This number was completely blown away as an estimated 200,000-500,000 demonstrators joined the crowd in Washington, D.C., while countless other demonstrators were seen supporting the March on Washington throughout the nation. Over 300,000 official march buttons were purchased at twenty-five cents a piece by people of all ethnicities and class statuses as part of a fundraising effort for the event. Another fundraiser was the selling of portfolios complete with pictures from the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these pictures displayed the true grit of the African American people fighting for their rights against the forces of fire hoses and police dogs. With the circulation of these images, people throughout the country began to understand the wrongdoings being committed against African Americans, and a slight change in the nation’s point of view could begin to be seen.

While many demonstrations in the South during the Civil Rights Movement were completely presented by African Americans, many of who were faced with poor living conditions and extreme racism, the faces of the supporters of the Civil Rights Movement began to change, seen no clearer than at the March on Washington. The crowd consisted of people of all ethnicities from places throughout the country. Approximately twenty-five percent of the crowd was white, showing a huge increase in white participation in events tied to the Civil Rights Movement. Twenty-five percent of the crowd meant that there were somewhere between 50,000 and 125,000 white supporters present at the March on Washington. A large portion of the African Americans involved in the crowd were from middle class backgrounds showing that people of all different classes were present as well. Even wealthy celebrities of different races showed up for the March on Washington including Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Charlton Heston among others. The large amount of people coming from each different race and social class added up to the largest political demonstration the United States had ever seen.

As opposed to other large demonstrations which became violent and destructive, the March on Washington remained peaceful throughout its duration, quite possibly resulting in a much stronger message to the government. The journey to Washington, D.C. was marked by upbeat spirits and joyful songs, helping to bring together the thousands of individual people into one strong group fighting for their cause. As varied as the people participating in the March on Washington were, so were the ways in which they arrived at the final destination. Participants arrived in cars and buses, arrived on foot or on bikes and roller skates. No matter how they came, they all had the same goal in mind when they showed up at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the main event of the demonstration. The March on Washington stopped at the Lincoln Memorial as a reminder of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major victory for African Americans in the United States. Although the situation African Americans were facing in their lives had greatly improved since the times of slavery, equality was still there to be fought for, which is exactly why these people participated in the March on Washington.

With the overwhelming crowd of demonstrators present at the March on Washington and with a changing view of equality in the nationwide perspective, African Americans were finally granted with legal equality. The civil rights bill passed on to Congress by President Kennedy became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it was officially passed on July 2, 1964. Racial discrimination in public places became illegal with the act. Although there is no guaranteed way of determining whether or not the bill would have passed without the March on Washington, it is certain that the event affected people throughout the nation.

The true impact of the March on Washington is believed to have come from the open mixing of different ethnicities to help each other as well as the peaceful manner in which it was carried out. The event was best described by Russell Baker, a writer for the New York Times, when he stated: “No one could remember an invading army quite as gentle as the two hundred thousand civil-rights marchers who occupied Washington today…The sweetness and patience of the crowd may have set some sort of national high-water mark in mass decency.” From this statement, a clear picture of the people involved in the peaceful protest can be determined. These were not people trying to cause a problem or show how powerful they could be, but rather they were people fighting for a cause they knew they deserved. They wanted to inform others that equality was the right thing in a way that no one could argue against. Even forty years after the March on Washington occurred, NPR’s Juan Williams called the demonstration “[…] the prime example of Americans peacefully petitioning their government for change.” With the peaceful protest, the impact was felt, and the goal was accomplished thanks to the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of participants.

The March on Washington became what it was because of all of the citizens who came together as one group. Although the main focus of the event was placed on the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who made speeches, in particular Martin Luther King, Jr., these leaders would have gone completely unrecognized had there not been hundreds of thousands of people present to listen. The actions of the people who took part in the March on Washington showed the progression of the status of racism in the United States. What was once deemed almost necessary had completely transformed into something that needed to be removed from American society. The coming together of each individual person who was there that day supporting the cause is a reflection of the changing times America was facing.

Baker, Russell. “Capital Is Occupied By a Gentle Army.” New York Times 29 Aug 1963: A1. Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. Gentile, Thomas. March on Washington: August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.: New Day Publications, 1983. “The March On Washington.” NPR Online.

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