That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain the dream one dreamed in agony.—James Baldwin
They came from all over America—and beyond. Two-thousand one-hundred and seventy-three buses from over one hundred cities. Forty special trains. Hundreds of cars. Eight chartered airplanes. Three teenagers hitchhiked from Gadsden, Alabama. Twelve high school kids walked from New York. A factory worker, sponsored by the NAACP, rollerskated in from Chicago. A minister traveled by bus from Boston, then got out in Baltimore and ran the last forty miles.
An estimated 250,000 people came to Washington on a typically hot and muggy August day—a day, one marcher said, almost as hot as a paddy wagon in Mississippi—at the end of the most active summer of protest in the nation’s history.
They staged “the biggest demonstration for freedom” ever, creating in one day a whole new way for citizens to talk to their government and each other. They came to press the Kennedy Administration—a band of liberal reformers who still appointed segregationists to the courts, indicted marchers for picketing the grocery store, approved wiretaps on civil rights leaders, and looked the other way when police clubbed nonviolent protesters—to embrace the cause.
They came to petition the Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill. They came to commune with others who risked their lives for civil rights. But most of all they came to transform civil rights in the minds of the American public, from the grievances of a minority to a fundamental concern for all Americans.
In the summer of 1963, more than 2,000 protests and demonstrations took place across the South. A handful are well known; the rest have been lost to history. But those other protests created the context for the March on Washington—and reflect the movement’s shifting currents. As one activist from East St. Louis, Missouri, remarked, “every town had its King and its Malcolm. And then there were the ‘race men,’ the scholars who kept alive what it meant to be black in that community, and also the vast majority of people who tried to get along without getting too hurt. And finally, there were the passives and the cynics, the people who had seen too much and simply didn’t believe anything could ever change.”
The March on Washington has become an iconic moment in American history. With every Martin Luther King Day celebration comes the telling of familiar tales, with a familiar soundtrack and familiar lessons. The March is depicted as “a church picnic,” full of love and promise—and a turning point in the battle for landmark civil rights laws. Scholars rate King’s oration among the finest, and most influential, in U.S. history. For the first time, all the elements of the civil rights movement found expression in one text. For the first time, American society at large heard a cogent expression of the condition of black American and an agenda for change.
Just as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address fundamentally transformed the social contract that bonded Americans—from a collection of separate states into one nation “of the people, by the people, for the people”—King’s speech established new ideals for the American system. King established a new standard for policy, law and society, that the U.S. should strive to be a “beloved community” where people would be judged “not by the color their skin but by the content of their character.”
The reality of the March on Washington is more complex—and compelling, too—than standard treatments allow. The March on Washington provided a powerful climax to a long and violent summer, a shining example of what America might look like in an age of equal rights for all races.
Tensions and complexities bubbled throughout the movement and the March. March leaders faced difficult, perhaps impossible, decisions—how to deal with establishment figures like JFK, the Justice Department and FBI, and Congress; how to engage separatists like Malcolm X, affirming the very real need for racial identity without feeding destructive anger; how to expand the civil rights message beyond public accommodations and voting to the broader questions of poverty and ghettos, how to bring young and old together, and how to support the growing feminist and student movements.
Civil rights leaders also battled for primacy from the highest to the lowest levels. Grassroots activists battled each other and their own leadership, with all the guile and passion that they brought to marches, sit-ins, freedom rides. The president and Congress faced many of the same tensions, as well as their own institutional issues. Other groups—like churches and labor unions—also struggled to fit into the civil rights era.