The March on Washington

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History: A Quarter Million People and a Dream 

On August 28, 1963, about a quarter-million people participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom gathering near the Lincoln Memorial.

More than 3,000 members of the press covered this historic march, in which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the exalted “I Have a Dream” speech.

Pictured: (Standing l. to r.) Matthew Ahmann, Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Rabbi Joachim Prinz; John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake; Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and labor union leader Walter Reuther; (Standing l. to r.) Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League; Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee; A. Philip Randolph, labor union leader who conceptualized the march; Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins. Photo Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Pictured: (Standing l. to r.) Matthew Ahmann, Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Rabbi Joachim Prinz; John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake; Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and labor union leader Walter Reuther; (Sitting l. to r.) Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League; Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee; A. Philip Randolph, labor union leader who conceptualized the march; Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins. Photo Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Originally conceived by renowned labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, the March on Washington evolved into a collaborative effort amongst major civil rights groups and icons of the day.

Stemming from a rapidly growing tide of grassroots support and outrage over the nation’s racial inequities, the rally drew over 260,000 people from across the nation.

Celebrated as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—speech of the 20th century, Dr. King’s celebrated speech, “I Have a Dream,” was carried live by television stations across the country.

A March 20 Years in the Making

In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph first conceptualized a “march for jobs” in protest of the racial discrimination against African Americans from jobs created by WWII and the New Deal programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The march was stalled, however, after negotiations between Roosevelt and Randolph prompted the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) and an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries.

The FEPC dissolved just five years later, causing Randolph to revive his plans.

He looked to the charismatic Dr. King to breathe new life into the march.

NAACP and SCLC Center the March on Civil Rights

By the late 1950s, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were also planning to march on Washington, this time to march for freedom.

As the years passed on, the Civil Rights Act was still stalled in Congress, and equality for Americans of color still seemed like a far-fetched dream.

Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks at the March on Washington. Photo: Bob Adelman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks at the March on Washington. Photo: Bob Adelman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Randolph, his chief aide, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. King all decided it would be best to combine the two causes into one mega-march, the March for Jobs and Freedom.

NAACP, headed by Roy Wilkins, was called upon to be one of the leaders of the march.

As one of the largest and most influential civil rights groups at the time, NAACP harnessed the collective power of its members, organizing a march that was focused on the advancement of civil rights and the actualization of Dr. King’s dream.

The Big Six

A quarter million people strong, the march drew activists from far and wide.

Leaders of the six prominent civil rights groups at the time joined forces in organizing the march.

The group includedRandolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP; Dr. King, Chairman of the SCLC; James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League.

Dr. King, originally slated to speak for 4 minutes, went on to speak for 16 minutes, giving one of the most iconic speeches in history.


“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
I Have a Dream, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 


Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo: Bob Adelman. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo: Bob Adelman. Courtesy Library of Congress.

It didn’t take long for King’s dream to come to fruition — the legislative aspect of the dream, that is.

After a decade of continued lobbying of Congress and the President led by the NAACP, plus other peaceful protests for civil rights, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One year later, he signed the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Together, these laws outlawed discrimination against blacks and women, effectively ending segregation, and sought to end disenfranchisement by making discriminatory voting practices illegal.

Ten years after King joined the civil rights fight, the campaign to secure the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had achieved its goal – to ensure that black citizens would have the power to represent themselves in government.

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More about the pivotal March on Washington

Full Speech Text:  I Have a Dream
See the full text of  the “I Have a Dream Speech.

Short Film: March on Washington History
Watch this short, produced by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.