Making the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

By Stacey Flores Chandler, Reference Archivist

On the morning of August 28, 1963, roughly 250,000 people arrived in Washington D.C. to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a massive demonstration in support of civil rights for Black Americans. As the largest protest of its time and the stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the March on Washington is remembered now as a landmark moment in American history. But records in the JFK Library’s archives show that in 1963, its organizers faced behind-the-scenes challenges that made pulling off a successful March even more complicated than it seemed.

ST-C278-2-63 (PX 96-33). A crowd of unidentified participants attends the March on Washington, 28 August 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs.

THE leadership

The March was planned by some of the country’s biggest civil rights organizations, represented by leaders known as the Civil Rights Movement’s “Big Six”: James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality); John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); Martin Luther King, Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference); A. Philip Randolph (Negro American Labor Council); Roy Wilkins (NAACP); and Whitney Young (National Urban League). Most members of the planning team, which also included white leaders from religious organizations and labor unions, spoke during the official program.

MISCACC-2003-036-p0001. Cover of the March on Washington program, including a list of speakers. Miscellaneous Accessions, 2003-36.

Black women leaders like Anna Arnold Hedgeman (National Council of Churches) and Dorothy Height (National Council of Negro Women) were part of the core organizing team, too, and they fought to include women in the speaking lineup. The group ultimately approved one woman – Myrlie Evers – to give a tribute to Black women during the official program; when Evers couldn’t make it to the March, Daisy Bates stepped in to speak instead. But before the official proceedings started, another Black woman addressed the crowd: entertainer and activist Josephine Baker, who’d traveled from her home in France to be there. Baker wrote to President John F. Kennedy after the March, calling it “indeed the greatest moment of my life.”

September 2nd 1963

Mister President,
My visite in Washington on the 28th of this August 1963 was indeed the greatest moment of my life, to be there on the day of one of our most historical events was really wonderful for me because I have seen the beginning of the turning of the tide.
You have seen that most of the people want to live together in harmony and brotherhood as true Americans. 
I am so very, very happy to have been able to live these most unforgettable moments toward the betterment of our problems. I am sure now you will be able to ajuste a lot of wrongs and errors that have been made because of teh laws and habits and now our country will be the greatest place to live in the world. You can make these changes of laws etc., and will be the only person, too. So may I say courage and may God speed you on the road of justice because all eyes are on you and if you take advantage of this unique occasion one day our children will be able to love and admire your statue as we all do Abraham Lincoln's today.
Now is the time, do what is indispecsable to be done, but you must do it now and not wait.
JFKWHCSF-0365-008-p0084. First page of a letter from Josephine Baker to President John F. Kennedy, 2 September 1963. White House Central Subject Files, Box 365, “HU: 2: FG 216 (District of Columbia): General.”

In his first and second oral history interviews for the JFK Library, James Farmer remembered other conflicts between March organizers, explaining that he’d originally imagined a March where “we would have raised some nonviolent hell. We would have had some sit-ins on Capitol Hill.” But some organizers thought these tactics would alienate members of Congress as they worked on Kennedy’s civil rights bill, and Farmer found that they “were not going to accept this kind of action.”

In the end, the group decided on what Farmer called a “controlled mass meeting” and signed on to a statement asking protestors to “place the Cause above all else.” They combined their organizations’ top priorities into a ten-point list of civil rights demands for lawmakers, including new policies on education, voting rights, housing, and labor.

PAGE ONE
Statement by the heads of the ten organizations calling for discipline in connection with the Washington March of August 28, 1963: 

The Washington March of August 28th is more than just a demonstration. It was conceived as an outpouring of the deep feeling of millions of white and colored American citizens that the time has come for the government of the United States of America, and particularly for the Congress of that government, to grant and guarantee complete equality in citizenship to the Negro minority of our population. 
As such, the Washington March is a  living petition-in the flesh-of the scores of thousands of citizens of both races who will be present from all parts of our country. "It will be orderly, but not subservient. It will be proud, but not arrogant. It will be non-violent, but not timid. It will be unified in purposes and behavior, not splintered into groups and individual competitors. It will be outspoken, but not raucous. 
It will have the dignity befitting a demonstration in behalf of the human rights of twenty millions of people, with the eye and the judgment of the world focused upon Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. 
In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a  level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government. 
We, the undersigned, who see the Washington March as wrapping up the dreams, hopes, ambitions, tears, and prayers of millions who have lived for this day, call upon the members, followers and wellwishers of our several organizations to make the March a disciplined and purposeful demonstration. 
We call upon them all, black and white, to resist provocations to dis-order and to violence. 
We ask them to remember that evil persons are determined to smear this March and to discredit the cause of equality by deliberate efforts to stir disorder. 
We call for self-discipline, so that no one in our own ranks, however enthusiastic,  shall be the spark for disorder. 
We call for resistance to the efforts of those who, while not enemies of the March as such, might seek to use it to advance causes not dedicated primarily to civil rights or to the welfare of our country. We ask each and everyone in attendance in Washington or in spiritual attendance back home to place the Cause above all else. 
Do not permit a few irresponsible people to hang a new problem around our necks as we return home. Let's do what we came to do-place the national human rights problem squarely on the doorstep of the national Congress and of the Federal Government. 
Let's win at Washington." Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, Vice-Chairman of the Commission on Race Relations of the National Council of Churches of Christ in America SIGNED: James Farmer, National Director of th e Congress of Racial Equality. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

PAGE TWO
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress. A. Philip Randolph, President of the Negro American Labor Council. Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and Chairman, Industrial Union Department, AFL-CID. Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Whitney M. Young Jr. , Executive Director of the National Urban League. 
In addition, the March has been endorsed by major religious fraternal, labor and civil rights organizations. A full list, too long to include here, will be published. 
WHAT WE DEMAND* 
1 . Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress-without compromise or filibuster-to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations decent housing adequate and integrated education the right to vote 2 . Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. 
3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963. 
4. Enforcement of the fourteenth Amendment-reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised. 
5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing sup-ported by federal funds. 
6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated. 
7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers-Negro and white-on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages. 
8. A national minimum wage act that· will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 on hour fails to do this.) 
9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards  Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded. 
10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers,  contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions. 
• Support of the March does not necessarily indicate endorsement  of every demand listed. Some organizations have not had an opportunity to toke an official position on all of the demands advocated here.
MISCACC-2003-036-p0002. Inside panels of the March on Washington program, including a section on the organizers’ demands. Miscellaneous Accessions, 2003-36.

A few hours after the March, an interviewer asked Whitney Young about the reported disagreements between the organizers. He answered:

Any time you get five or six organizations with such magnificent and sparkling leadership as you have in this kind of a group, you are bound to, at moments, have minor disagreements… But I think today we made it abundantly clear that while we may sometimes differ on methods, that we are united as never before in the common goal of achieving total equality now for our Negro citizens.

Whitney Young interview, 28 August 1963. White House Central Subject Files.

THE LOGISTICS

During planning, another urgent question (shared by March leaders and the federal government) came up: how could 100,000 protestors – a huge underestimation, as it turned out – move safely through a route that covered just one mile between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial?

MISCACC-2003-036-p0002. Map of the route from the March on Washington program. Miscellaneous Accessions, 2003-36.

The answer came largely from another key figure whose name wasn’t on the official program: Bayard Rustin. Rustin’s work as the March’s Deputy Director – from preventing safety hazards to mapping out parking and restroom access – is well-documented, but in 1963, some of the other organizers wanted to keep him out of the spotlight. In his JFK Library oral history interview, John Lewis described their reasoning:

People…didn’t want him to be the head because he had been associated with the Young Communists Party. …He was gay, too. They thought…especially Southern senators would stand up on the floor and say they have this Black gay Communist leading the March.

John Lewis interview, 19 March 2004. John F. Kennedy Oral History Collection.

Rustin remained active behind the scenes, meeting with officials from the U.S. Justice Department, the National Park Police, and other agencies to advocate for marchers. Records of his meetings show Rustin at work as he asked officials to protect participants “from outside agitators or police brutality.”

THE GOVERNMENT

In oral history interviews, other March organizers described their own interactions with government officials at all levels – including the highest. John Lewis remembered telling President Kennedy about the March for the first time in a June 1963 meeting: “He didn’t necessarily like what he heard. And he said, ‘If you bring a lot of people to Washington, won’t there be a crisis, disorder, chaos? And we would never be able to get a civil rights bill through the Congress.’” James Farmer, who attended the same meeting, recalled that “the administration had made its position clear…that the March would be a mistake. Then their position seemed to change, and since the March was inevitable, they would seek to control it and be a part of it.”

At a press conference in July, a reporter asked Kennedy whether the March posed a problem for his administration. Kennedy noted: “We want citizens to come to Washington if they feel that they’re not having their rights expressed. But, of course, arrangements have been made to make this responsible and peaceful. This is not a march on the Capitol.”

JFKWHCSF-0365-007-p0007. Letter to John F. Kennedy from A. Philip Randolph, 13 August 1963. White House Central Subject Files, Box 365, “HU: 2: FG 216 (District of Columbia): Executive.”

A few weeks later, March Director A. Philip Randolph wrote to ask the President to meet with organizers on the morning of August 28, just hours before the official program would begin. In his oral history interview, Presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen explained Kennedy’s decision to meet with the leaders after the March, instead: “He felt that if they should present him with a list of demands he could not meet, the march would then turn into an anti-Kennedy protest.”

In the hour-long meeting (which Kennedy secretly recorded), March leaders discussed their list of demands and their thoughts on civil rights legislation with the President and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

JFKWHP-ST-C277-1-63. March on Washington leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, 28 August 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs.

the PUBLIC

Throughout the planning process and up to the day of the March, organizers were aware of yet another complication: negative public opinion. A 1963 Gallup poll found that only 23% of Americans who’d heard of the March had a positive view of it, and 60% believed “mass demonstrations by Negroes” were likely to hurt the cause of racial equality. In the weeks before the event, the White House was flooded with letters from the public – now preserved in the Library’s archives – that reflected these views. Some expressed support for the March, while many others included racist language and predicted violence and riots.

John F. Kennedy Public Opinion Mail, Boxes 198-200.

In response to these letters, the Kennedy administration defended “the use of peaceful assemblies, large and small, to direct attention to grievances.” But, aligning with the President’s previous statements, staff members stopped short of explicitly endorsing the March and instead emphasized that the event would be peaceful.

JFKWHCSF-0365-008-p0266. Assistant Special Counsel Lee White’s response to a letter about the March on Washington. White House Central Subject Files, Box 365, “HU: 2: FG 216 (District of Columbia): General.”

While March leaders included a statement in their official program asking participants to “be non-violent, but not timid,” Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the ultimately unrealized fears of rioting in an interview after the March:

There are those individuals who constantly talk about violence or the possibility of a riot. …The constant prediction of violence is often an invitation to it. On the other hand, I think it is important to point out that when an individual stands up for his constitutional rights, even if in the quest for these rights violence is precipitated, the individual who stands up must not be blamed. Society must always protect the individual who stands up for his constitutional rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr. interview, 28 August 1963, White House Central Subject Files.
ST-C278-4-63 (PX 96-33). Crowd of participants at the March on Washington, 28 August 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs.

After the March, A. Philip Randolph explained the ultimate goal behind the months of effort: “If we were able to mobilize the total resources of various communities…we would make some progress in developing a national consensus in the interest of civil rights legislation.” Less than a year later, Randolph and other March leaders would stand in the East Wing of the White House to watch President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

At the JFK Library, we’re committed to preserving and providing access to records that document not only the March itself, but the complex work of Black leaders – both famous and lesser-known – in their fight for civil rights during John F. Kennedy’s Presidency. You can learn more about the Library’s civil rights collections here, and find more archival materials documenting the March through the National Archives Rediscovering Black History blog.

One comment

  1. Archivist,
    Thank you for posting this. Documents like this show that those “historians” who excoriate Jack as “going slow on civil rights” have not examined the week by week, day by day documentation. Neither do they give enough weight to the civics of the matter: if the Congress does not pass the bill, the President cannot sign it. I particularly enjoy the mad letter from the lady who says everyone knows that the “Negroes” elected him. Like that was a bad thing. The state of our nation today shows many still stand with that lady. In ‘63 they could not stop the march. Today, no one can stop the future with its arc of justice from marching to meet us.

    Thank you.
    Dr. K. Krefft

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