“Confronted with the Fierce Urgency of Now”: 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

August 27, 2013

march on washingtonRiding for twenty hours on a bus, with no access to motels, public bathrooms, and restaurants, is a trip daunting enough to put most people off it. Privations like those were not enough to hold back the attendees of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held August 28, 1963. Approximately 250,000 people participated, and most of the African Americans who came to Washington, D.C. had journeys just like that. Of all the convulsive events of the 1960s, the March on Washington was the most determinedly hopeful.

The organizers of the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, also known as “the Great March on Washington”, intended the march to call for civil and economic rights for African Americans. The march culminated in a program featuring a cast of celebrated singers, religious leaders, and civil rights leaders chosen for their significance to the movement and its cause. Marian Anderson reprised her famous 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by singing the National Anthem. Mahalia Jackson, the famed gospel singer, delivered/sang the apt selections “How I Got Over”, and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned”. Myrlie Evers, the recent widow of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers, gave a tribute to the “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”: Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Mrs. Herbert (Prince) Lee, and Gloria Richardson. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King said, “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights”, but he also said,

“…in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

His listeners heeded his words. Prior to the march, many politicians (including President Kennedy) and potential participants feared it would end in violence. The event took place peacefully, in a joyful spirit, according to accounts of marchers recorded afterwards.  You can learn more about the march and the Civil Rights movement in Free at Last: the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

This speech and the event itself have become cultural icons in American history, and both are attributed responsibility for helping with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Fair Housing Act (1968), and the now-defunct Voting Rights Act (1965). People’s hopes for the outcome for the March were ultimately rewarded, although it took years to see those hopes come to fruition.

As the fiftieth anniversary of this event approaches, organizers have planned a number of celebrations to honor both the veterans of the march and the march’s historical significance. Volunteers will ring bells from the places Dr. King mentioned in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the day as well: Stone Mountain, Georgia; Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; as well as other locations. The organization “50th Anniversary March on Washington” is holding a conference regarding civil rights on August 27, and leading a recreation of the march to the National Mall on August 28, 2013. At the end of the march, President Obama will give a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King spoke so movingly. Hopefully he’ll stand near the plaque marking Dr. King’s speech, that Congress arranged in An Act to Provide for the Placement at the Lincoln Memorial of a Plaque Commemorating the Speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., Known as the “I Have a Dream” Speech.

You can find out more about this period in our history by reading Free at Last: the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and An Act to Provide for the Placement at the Lincoln Memorial of a Plaque Commemorating the Speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., Known as the “I Have a Dream” Speech.  There are records available for the electronic versions of both works in the Catalog of Government Publications.

How can I access these publications?

Guest Blogger Jennifer Davis works for GPO’s Library Services and Content Management Division, which supports the Federal Depository Library Program. She is a frequent contributor to this blog.

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