Everything You Don’t Know About The March On Washington

The March on Washington: why John F. Kennedy opposed it, why Martin Luther King Jr. almost didn't "have a dream," and everything else your history teacher never told you.

March On Washington

AFP/AFP/Getty ImagesMore than 200,000 civil right supporters gather for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is probably best remembered as the event in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. But King almost didn’t even say those words that day. In fact, there’s much more to the story of this crucial civil rights moment than you learned in school.

1. A Gay Quaker Organized The March On Washington In Just Two Months

Bayard Rustin March On Washington

Wikimedia Commons Bayard Rustin (left) standing with a sign announcing the march.

The idea for the March on Washington came from A. Phillip Randolph, a prominent civil rights leader at the time. He had dreamed of having the march since 1941, when he threatened President Roosevelt with a march of 100,000 people to protest military segregation.

Eventually, in 1962, Randolph asked civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to organize the March on Washington. It wasn’t until July of 1963, when Randolph and other civil rights leaders met to make the march official, that Rustin could start planning in earnest. The march was scheduled for August 28, giving Rustin only eight weeks to put the enormous event together.

Though Rustin was an experienced activist, some opposed his role in the march because he was gay, and as a Quaker, was jailed as a conscientious objector during WWII. Event planners worried these facts could be used to discredit the march, but Randolph and King, who had worked with Rustin on other demonstrations such as the Montgomery bus boycott, insisted on keeping him on as the head organizer.

2. President Kennedy Didn’t Support The March On Washington

John F. Kennedy Meets With 1963 March On Washington Leaders

Wikimedia CommonsJohn F. Kennedy (eighth from left) meets with some of the march’s organizers including Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left), John Lewis (fourth from left), Whitney Young (second from right), and A. Philip Randolph (seventh from left).

Though President John F. Kennedy had recently introduced his Civil Rights Act (which would pass in 1964, thanks in large part to the march’s success), he tried to stop the March on Washington from happening. This opposition came not from a general dislike of the march, but from concerns that such a large demonstration might lead to violence and thus dissuade Congress from passing his Civil Rights Act.

With these fears in mind, in June 1963 Kennedy met with the “Big Six” civil rights leaders (King, Randolph, James Farmer, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young) and tried to get them to cancel the march. They refused.

Seeking compromise, Kennedy successfully imposed limits on the march: He reduced the number of attendees allowed; outlawed any signs not pre-approved; demanded that it take place on a weekday, and that everyone show up in the morning and disperse by nightfall.

3. The March Shut Out The Civil Rights Movement’s Female Leadership

Daisy Bates Odetta Holmes

Wikimedia CommonsDaisy Bates (left) and Odetta Holmes.

While the Civil Rights Movement actively campaigned for equality, that principle didn’t seem to fully apply when it came to selecting who could speak during the official ceremony. Though singer Josephine Baker spoke briefly before the official program began, women did not speak at the Lincoln Memorial podium. Organizers didn’t even invite Dorothy Height, leader of the National Council of Negro Women, to make a speech.

This decision appeared to be systematic. By Cambridge Movement leader Gloria Richardson’s own account, she — one of the few women originally slated to speak at the rally — had her microphone taken away as she greeted the audience.

The exclusion continued even after the event, when male leaders went to visit JFK and left critical female activists including Rosa Parks behind.

Many women who had campaigned tirelessly for their cause recognized the slight all too well. “We grinned; some of us,” activist Anna Arnold Hedgeman recalled of that day, “as we recognized anew that Negro women are second-class citizens in the same way that white women are in our culture.”

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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