Photograph by Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
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Participants in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Photograph by Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

1963 March On Washington

A historic demonstration gained freedoms for Black Americans

On August 28, 2020, Martin Luther King III stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as part of a demonstration to fight for changes in the ways that police interact with citizens, especially Black people.

Exactly 57 years ago, his father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in the same spot and gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during one of the most important civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history: the 1963 March on Washington. That day, over 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall to demand that people be treated equally, no matter their race.

A FIGHT FOR JUSTICE

The March on Washington took place during a nationwide civil rights movement in which Black Americans were fighting to receive the same treatment as white Americans.

Although slavery was made illegal in the United States in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, Black people continued to be treated unfairly. For example, beginning in the 1890s, southern states passed what were called “Jim Crow” laws that discriminated against Black people and segregated (or separated) them from white people. The laws varied by state, but they often forced Black people to use different bathrooms from white people, ride in different train cars, or attend different schools. These “separate” facilities were often in poor condition. Many southern states also created tests to prevent Black people from voting.

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Religious and civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. (front, second from right), A. Philip Randolph (front, center), and John Lewis (back, third from left) in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington

Black people were also not being hired for jobs they were qualified for—especially government jobs or defense jobs like building warplanes—just because of their race. In 1941, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph organized a march to protest that. But six days before the event, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed an executive order that banned discrimination in the defense industry and created a group to enforce the order. Randolph called off the march, but five years later, Congress stopped funding the enforcement group, and many companies went back to discriminating against Black people.

By the 1960s, many Black people were still unemployed or had low-paying jobs, and much of the country was still segregated by race. Civil rights leaders, including King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, joined with Randolph to organize another change-making demonstration: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the official name of the march.

The goal of the march was to urge President John F. Kennedy to pass a civil rights bill that would end segregation in public places like schools, ensure easier access to voting, train and place unemployed workers, and end the practice of not hiring people because of their race. The March on Washington was scheduled on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I HAVE A DREAM”

The day of the march was sunny and hot. Marchers arrived at the National Mall on buses and greeted each other with handshakes and hugs. Then they began their peaceful one-mile walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. The organizers estimated that perhaps 100,000 people would attend, but that day about 190,000 Black people and 60,000 white people came to the demonstration. Not a patch of grass could be seen as the marchers squeezed together to hear the speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

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Marchers cool their feet in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool during the March on Washington.

For three hours, they heard inspiring messages from the civil rights leaders about keeping up hope in the fight for equality and a better life. John Lewis, who would go on to serve 33 years in Congress, said, “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”

King spoke last. One hundred years after emancipation, Black Americans, he said, were still not free. He said the marchers were there to fulfill the promise of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees all citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He said that Black people wouldn’t be free until they have the freedom to visit all public spaces, freedom to enter businesses, freedom to vote, and freedom from police brutality.

Just when it seemed King was ending his speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell them about the dream!” That’s when he gave the most remembered line of the day: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses the crowd during the March on Washington.

ACHIEVEMENTS

From the Lincoln Memorial, the leaders walked to the White House, where they met with Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to demand support for a national civil rights bill. A year later, their demand was granted. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin. It also ended segregation in all public places and made voter registration easier for everyone.

Then the next year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It allowed the federal government to overturn state laws that had made it harder for Black people to vote.

THE FIGHT ISN'T OVER

Although the 1963 March on Washington brought important changes to the United States, the fight for equality between Black and white people isn’t over. A 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required some states (especially those with a history of making it hard for Black people to vote) to get permission from the federal government to change their voting laws. Since the decision, those states have created new voting rules, such as ones that decrease the amount of time for early voting and throw out ballots cast at the wrong polling station. Some say this is making voting more difficult.

Other issues also demonstrate inequality between races. For instance, according to a Harvard University study, Black Americans are over three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. After George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a police officer on May 25, 2020, about 15 million people across the country have protested in support of Black lives.

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A view of the crowd assembled on the National Mall with the Washington Monument in the background

As A. Philip Randolph said at the 1963 March on Washington, "The March on Washington is not a climax of our struggle, but a new beginning, not only for the negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life."