Eating on the March: Food at the 1963 March on Washington

Organizing an event that large was a formidable task in and of itself. Tackling the issue of handling food for the masses was another issue entirely

Food service crew workers
Food service crew workers National Archives

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people peacefully marched between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to show support of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights and to bring widespread public attention to end segregation in public schools and the federal implementation of fair employment practices to prevent job discrimination. The March on Washington was a watershed moment in human rights history that helped to get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law. Organizing an event that large was a formidable task in and of itself, requiring the coordination of  grass roots groups to drum up participants and raise the funds to travel to DC. Tackling the issue of handling food for the masses was another issue entirely.

The Chicago Tribune anticipated a bleak sustenance situation. “Tomorrow, should the nation-wide turnout for the march swell from 100,000 demonstrators to 200,000 or more, there may be shortages of food. Even access to portable toilet facilities and to temporary drinking fountains attached to fire hydrants may be at a premium.” March organizers advised participants to bring their own water jugs and two boxed lunches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples were recommended as a durable foodstuffs and discouraged anything with mayonnaise as it would spoil in the summer heat.

In New York, volunteers showed up at the Riverside Church at 3:00 AM to make bagged lunches  The bagged meal, comprised of a cheese sandwich, mustard, marble cake and an apple, could be purchased by marchers for 50 cents. Working in shifts until 4 in the afternoon, the assembly line crew paused once for a few words from Dr. Robert Spike, director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches: ”As an act of love, we now dedicate these lunches for the nourishment of thousands who will be coming long distances, at great sacrifice to say with their bodies and souls that we shall overcome.” In all, 5 tons of American cheese went into the 80,000 lunches that were loaded onto refrigerated trucks and shipped down to Washington.

Early reports estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 demonstrators would be in attendance. Fearing unruly behavior, the District of Columbia placed an unprecedented ban on the sale of liquor, beer and wine from 12:00 am on the 28th through the following morning. This extended not just to standalone liquor stores, but to the city’s bars and restaurants. (The only holdout was the House of Representatives cafeteria, which traditionally had beer on the menu and served it on the day of the march. The rest of the city being dry did nothing to boost sales.) The policemen, national guardsmen and others charged with maintaining order were forced to forego their lunch breaks that day and ate boxed lunches while at their posts: two sandwiches, a piece of cake and juice. Rioting did not occur as anticipated.

A mile or so north from the National Mall, on Washington’s U Street, also known as the “Black Broadway,” the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl served people in town for the march. Per the Washington City Paper, Ben’s cofounder Virginia Ali recalls, “I remember the enthusiasm of many people about going down there to march for equal rights and jobs.”

After the day’s scheduled events ended, a delegation of march leaders—which included A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr.—met with President Kennedy at the White House where they were served tea, coffee, canapes and sandwiches and discussed the prospect of civil rights legislation passing. Kennedy was obviously impressed by demonstration, saying that “the cause of 20,000,000 Negroes has been advanced.”

Activist John Lewis was also in attendance and recounted meeting the president to author Michael Fletcher in an exclusive Smithsonian magazine interview. “He stood in the doorway of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.” And yet, there were no great dinners or parties to celebrate the day. “I don’t believe as a group that we got together and had a meal,” Lewis recalls. “But some of the young people in SNCC were able to pick up a hamburger, a sandwich here and there, get a soft drink, lemonade. But we were just pleased that everything had gone so well.”

Even the language of dining was used to describe the event. In his response to the march, activist Malcolm X thought that the organizers and the participation of liberal white groups inappropriately toned down the feelings of anger and inequity that initially fueled the gathering. “It had become an outing, a picnic,” he wrote in his 1964 autobiography. “What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as ‘the gentle flood.’”

The New York Times used the same metaphor to describe the day, but saw the situation differently: ”The picnic atmosphere that pervaded much of Wednesday’s march should not be misinterpreted as betokening any lack of determination on the Negro’s part to insist on the rights he has been so long denied. Rather it was an affirmation of his confidence in the efficacy of an appeal to national morality to make true the dreams so eloquently evoked by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. It is up to all of us to make certain those dreams are not destroyed.”

For more on the 1963 March on Washington, read our oral history from the movers and shakers who made that demonstration a resounding success.

Additional Sources

“On the March.” Newsweek. 2 Sept. 1963.

Petersen, Anna. “80,000 Lunches Made here by Volunteers for Washington Marchers.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.

Pakenham, Michael. “Rights Marchers Are Sightseers, Too!” The Chicago Tribune. 29 Aug. 1963.

Rich, James. “1,686 Chicagoans En Route to Washington.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Aug. 1963.

Robertson, Nan. “Capital is Ready for March Today; 100,000 Expected.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.

“The March in Washington.” Time magazine. 30 Aug. 1963.

Wicker, Tom. “President Meets March Leaders.” The New York Times. 29 Aug. 1963.

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