August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That day between 200,000 and 300,000 people gathered at our nation’s capitol to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of hope in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” To date, the March on Washington is the largest political gathering for civil rights in U.S. history.
The March was organized by many groups, with the leadership of Bayard Rustin. The mission was led by a group of men labeled as the Big Six: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and John Lewis. Congressman Lewis would also be the youngest speaker at the march. They operated under the name of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. The original group included Bayard Rustin, but because Rustin was an openly gay black man, some of the members believed that he should not be at the forefront of the organized group, but should be a background lead organizer. Rustin had already organized many of the historical marches and protests of the SNCC.
By July 17th, the leaders had met with President Kennedy to reassure a peaceful protest. The president gave public rest regarding the march and explained that there would be cooperation of the police force and government.
Attendees of the March on Washington were estimated to be 75% black. Funds were raised through the sale of buttons, in which the organizers sold 42,000. The cities of Chicago and New York City supported those wanting to attend the march by declaring August 28th “Freedom Day,” giving workers the day off to participate.
The march did not come without a price of safety. There were numerous death threats to organizers and the media from racists hoping to stop the process.
The night before the march, the sound system that was to deliver Dr. King’s message was sabotaged. After Walter Fauntroy contacted General Robert Kennedy about the system with the threat of riots if people could not hear the message, gave way to the government’s help to fix the system overnight to ensure Dr. King could be heard throughout the Lincoln Memorial grounds.
The March was a legendary success. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was translated in 36 languages and carried by major media nationwide. There were performances by Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Marion Anderson, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary.