What was the March on Washington?
The 1963 March on Washington made history as one of the largest protest marches ever staged, and the setting for Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Rhiannon Davies shares an explainer on the events of the day…
When was the March on Washington?
On 28 August 1963, a multi-racial crowd of more than 250,000 protesters flocked to the United States of America's capital, Washington DC, to take part in one of the biggest protest marches ever staged. They were campaigning in the name of jobs and freedom, trying to pressure the president at the time, John F Kennedy, to pass the civil rights legislation that he had long been promising. On the day, protesters gathered at the Washington Monument, before marching about a mile down the National Mall to gather in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite the authorities’ fears that violence might break out, the atmosphere of the day was peaceful. In fact, it has even been described by some as “like a picnic”.
What happened at the March on Washington?
The day's programme was packed with a full roster of entertainers and inspiring activists. Marchers sung along to musicians like Bob Dylan, prayed with pastors, and at the end of the night listened in awe to the final speaker: Martin Luther King Jr. King was an icon by this time, having first risen to fame during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, sparked by Rosa Parks' decision not to give up her bus seat. He was one of the boycott's leaders, and his inspiring speeches had captivated the press and roused the nation. But it was during the March on Washington that he delivered his most iconic speech: the “I have a dream” speech.
The first half of his speech was as he'd practised. In it, he powerfully explained how he felt black Americans were still not free, a century on from emancipation, and had “come to our nation's capital to cash a check”.
He told the eager crowd: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” But then, after delivering his prepared remarks, he went off script. He decided to share with the crowd in front of him his dream for the future of America, he said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
This speech is now remembered as one of the most iconic of the 20th century and a defining moment of the US civil rights movement. It captivated the world and made waves in the White House. After that march, civil rights leaders, including King, went to speak with the president. The following year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law as Martin Luther King Jr looked on.
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