March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Flyer, 1963
The March on Washington of August 28, 1963, was the culmination of over 10 years of civil rights protests, rallies, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Participants in the march demanded societal changes that had been pursued since the late 1940s: desegregation, antidiscrimination laws, and minimum wage guarantees. What distinguished the march from other powerful campaigns for racial equality, such as the Montgomery bus boycotts, was its incredible size and the attention it received in the national media. Over 250,000 protestors walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool on a swelteringly hot August day, participating in the largest nonviolent protest in American history. The march's primary purpose was to unite the various narratives of the civil rights movement, which until then had been seen as a collection of local struggles, into a single national story—one that all Americans could see and hear on their television screens. The march itself was an incredible success, creating iconic moments that have become part of Americans' national memory, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and Joan Baez's rendition of "We Shall Overcome." But how the march was successfully executed, despite countless obstacles, is perhaps its most enduring legacy.
Opposition to a Civil Rights march in 1963 was fierce. On Meet the Press, a popular news program, the event's organizers—Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King Jr., head of the SCLC—were grilled about rumored Communist ties and the potential that the peaceful march would turn into a violent riot. In preparation for the march, Washington officials transferred prisoners in the city to jails in the suburbs in order to open up enough space to accommodate the protestors they assumed would be arrested. Even President Kennedy, a relatively firm supporter of civil rights, had already denied protestors access to Capitol Hill as a starting point for the march. And, as this flyer suggests, march organizers had to depend on unreliable public transportation systems that were notorious for discrimination to help protestors travel to the nation's capital.
Somehow, King and Wilkins successfully negotiated with the city government, organized massive public transit, and convinced protestors to refrain from violence. Turnout, which had been predicted to be 100,000, at most was more than twice that. What was once a movement driven by local struggles became a national force; the call for racial and economic equality harmonized into a national rallying cry, and real legal reform was slowly signed into law over the coming years. The March on Washington, ultimately, became a unifying event that remains a symbol of the accomplishments of the 1960s and a foundation upon which the legacy of racial equality is still remembered today.