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.
The March on Washington was dubbed another major stepping stone to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965.
As agreed upon by the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, the stated purpose of the March on Washington was to encourage:
• Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation
• Immediate elimination of school segregation
• A program of public works, including job training for the unemployed
• A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring
• A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide
• Withholding federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination
• Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from states that disenfranchise citizens
• A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas
• Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March. A major celebration will take place to commemorate our nation’s largest gathering in civil rights history. President Barack Obama will give a speech at the “Let Freedom Ring” celebration, along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Other speakers include the family of Trayvon Martin, who was slain in February 2012.
The U.S. Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp to honor the March’s anniversary. The stamp will be unveiled today.
There will be additional events and concerts hosted by the Smithsonian Institute. Most importantly, more than 100,000 people are expected to March at the National Mall to honor one of the greatest days in black history.
The March will also be recognized internationally by bell-ringing in Katmandu, London and Tokyo, at 3 p.m. (local time).