Washington is a city of spectacles. Every four years imposing Presidential inaugurations attract the great and the mighty. Kings, prime ministers, heroes, and celebrities of every description have been feted there for more than 150 years. But in its entire glittering history, Washington had never seen a spectacle of the size and grandeur that assembled there on August 28, 1963.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If “freedom was contagious” in the summer of 1963, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted, this particular fever would reach its peak in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. The March on Washington would serve as further notice that the black population of the United States sought justice. King said of the event, “We had strength because there were so many of us, representing so many more.”
It was a political demonstration, certainly, but the day carried with it much historical resonance. Among the celebrities in attendance were Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, and Marlon Brando. Marian Anderson, already a symbol of the struggle, led in the singing of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Eleanor Roosevelt had previously invited her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson the opportunity to sing at its Constitution Hall.
The program was filled with speakers who had shaped and would continue to shape the civil rights movement. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of the Washington diocese gave the invocation. Tributes were paid to many black women, including Rosa Parks and Myrlie Evers, the recent widow of Medgar Evers. Twenty-three-year-old John Lewis, son of Alabama sharecroppers—and later elected to represent the Georgia Fifth District in Congress—made remarks early in the program, as did National Urban League director Whitney Young and NAACP secretary Roy Wilkins. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the final speaker.
King’s speech was stirring. While everyone else on the dais spoke only a few minutes, King orated for more than a quarter-hour, bringing the crowd of 250,000 people together with words that would serve as the prosaic centerpiece of the movement:
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character. . . . When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Though the struggle would continue, it would do so in the eyes of a more informed world. If at previous times the American civil rights movement had seemed like the work of a dissatisfied few, the united front of black America—as well as strong visible support within the white community—prevailed. King noted, “As television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the border oceans, everyone who believed in man’s capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race.”
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom / Bob Adelman (born 1930) / Gelatin silver print, 1963 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
Suzanne Bilyeu, “1939: Marian Anderson Sings to the Nation” The New York Times Upfront, Newsmagazine for Teens, undated.
March on Washington (program), 08/28/1963, Bayard Rustin Papers, John F. Kennedy Library, National Archives and Records Administration.