In hindsight, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has taken on mythic proportions.  Its importance as a turning point in the civil rights movement, a moment when the American public came to see race relations as a national, not a Southern issue, is taken for granted. 

The detailed work of main logistical organizer, Bayard Rustin, in arranging the day’s operations is consistently mentioned as a model of organizational genius.  The self-discipline and serious but good-natured enthusiasm of the huge, diverse crowd is commonly mentioned as an illustration of the power of the nonviolent direct action philosophy. The consensus opinion that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the greatest moments in American oratory—ranking right up there with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—is unquestioned. The 1963 march has become the standard by which all subsequent marches on the mall have been judged.

Bayard Rustin, left, and Cleveland Robinson shown during the March on Washington for Civil Rights.

Bayard Rustin, left, and Cleveland Robinson shown during the March on Washington for Civil Rights.

Orlando Fernandez/New York World Telegram and Sun Newspapers/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Over time, scholars have begun to revise our understanding of these popular images. While the march was undoubtedly a watershed moment in American history, it seems less clear now than it did in years past that its major influence was on the passage of federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Recently scholars have been exploring its positive impact on the community identity and personal self-image of African Americans. To stage local civil rights protests, like boycotts and sit-ins, was one thing; to successfully bring tens of thousands of black and white Americans to the National Mall from across America was an accomplishment of a totally different magnitude.  And to stage an almost flawless event that disregarded the opposition of the Kennedy Administration and defied the public’s racially charged fear of black violence was another thing entirely.  In other words, the march did not just influence future legislation; it demonstrated the singular power of marching on the Mall and built confidence and focus among African Americans that paved the way for future activism and protest.

In planning and executing his arrangements for the march, Rustin had to rely on a vast, national network of local operatives and organizations.  Historians have been reassessing the key roles played by local activists in many aspects of the civil rights movement.  Their irreplaceable creativity in communicating the procedures and expectations for participants was essential for setting the standards for conduct in and around the Mall.  Their relentless commitment to completing local arrangements for transportation to and from Washington was essential to the march’s success.  

Even the impact of Dr. King’s speech, which so ignited the crowd and has been a rallying cry for racial equality ever since, has been reassessed.  For some, its soaring reliance on an idealized “dream” seems to underestimate the necessity for struggle and the potential for real progress.  More commonly, those who opposed affirmative action drew a conservative conclusion to King’s comments about judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  To avoid confronting the realities of racism and inequality, they asserted their belief in “colorblind” race relations.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his iconic 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his iconic 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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The 1963 march focused on ending legal segregation and securing the right to vote as well as equitable economic opportunity.  Referring to the murder of George Floyd, this year’s event is entitled “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” Commitment March on Washington, It will focus on, as the NAACP has said, “pursuing a new agenda that prioritizes equality, equity, and justice.”  Specifically, the goals for the 2020 march include:

  • Comprehensive reform of police accountability
  • Economic empowerment 
  • Equitable access to healthcare and education
  • Voting rights and access
  • A complete and accurate Census

This march is organized by the National Action Network headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton in association with the NAACP, the National Urban League, AFSCME, The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, The Hispanic Federation, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and others. The diversity of planners—among them a labor union, a progressive lawyer’s organization, and an organization promoting Latino empowerment—illustrates the wide range of interests among the participants.  

We could have anticipated this variety of sponsors given the diversity found in recent progressive activism: the Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements; elements of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the presidency; the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, co-chaired by the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis; and the faces among the estimated half a million individuals who joined protests in more than 500 cities and towns in the aftermath of the May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. 

A protestor holds both of his fists up in the air as a group leaves the Cumberland County Jail in Portland.  

A protestor holds both of his fists up in the air as a group leaves the Cumberland County Jail in Portland.  

Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

We will not know the immediate impact, let alone legacy of this August 28th march for some time now.  We know the COVID-19 pandemic creates an unprecedented challenge to gathering 100,000 or even 50,000 people on the National Mall. We know that the political and social context in which this march occurs is immensely different from 1963 because of the intensity of the current presidential campaign, the wildly contentious nature of political discourse in general, and the widespread reaction to a long tradition of police violence that has been elevated to a national reckoning with systemic racial inequity and white supremacy...  We know we will have to make our own meaning out of the event.  History is not just a recitation of the facts, a description of what happened.  It is how we understand and make use of what occurs in the past to understand our present and help us make a better future.

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