Leaders from the major national civil rights organizations in the United States—a group known as the “Big Six”—proposed a massive nonviolent demonstration in Washington, D.C., the largest the capital had ever seen. The organizers called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and set a date, August 28, 1963.
“The idea of a major demonstration in Washington, in the nation’s capital, that brought together all of the major civil rights organizations would be a statement very different from what was happening around the country,” says Harry Rubenstein, curator of political history at the National Museum of American History.
That summer day, thousands of people gathered at the Washington Monument, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other musicians performed for the growing crowd. From there, the participants proudly picketed down Independence and Constitution Avenues to the Lincoln Memorial. Fourteen speakers, representing civil rights organizations, labor unions and religions, took to the podium. The messages built one upon another in a powerful crescendo, until Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
After the program, the “Big Six” proceeded to the White House, where they met with President Kennedy and entreated him to improve the civil rights legislation he was submitting to Congress.
It would take some time, but, ultimately, the March on Washington proved to be a strong catalyst in passing the bills in law. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, which legally banned any segregation in public facilities and employment and voting discrimination.
I recently spoke with Rubenstein, who curated “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963,” on display at the American History Museum through September 7, 2014, about the official Lincoln Memorial program for the March on Washington. Both the museum and the National Archives have the document in their collections.
Click on the yellow tabs, within the document, to learn more about the program and its speakers.