“He’s got everybody here, right in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands,” echoed classical contralto star Marian Anderson to a rising crowd approaching a record of at least 250,000 people across the National Mall on August 28, 1963.
In 1939, the high-profile Black singer had performed a mass Easter concert on the Lincoln Memorial steps in response to the Daughters of the American Revolution barring her from entering Washington’s segregated Constitutional Hall. More than 20 years later, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Anderson returned to the history-making landmark, ushering in a sound of freedom and another cry for racial equality.
The first-of-its-kind rally brought together Black and white Americans; celebrities and musicians like Anderson, actor and singer Harry Belafonte, and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan; children; teenagers; and traveling civic societies for a nonviolent demonstration in the nation’s capital. It was strategized by the “Big Six,” a group of leaders representing the nation’s most powerful civil rights organizations—including Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech that day.
To mark the march’s 60th anniversary and its timeless impacts, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is presenting a limited-run display of King’s speech. The rarely exhibited three-page mimeograph is one of several drafts King and his advisors wrote. The final draft on view at the museum was mimeographed by the March on Washington press office a few hours before King ascended to the podium.
King’s remarks capped off a day of tear-jerking song tributes and rousing calls for justice and freedom from the likes of labor unionist A. Philip Randolph and a youthful John Lewis. Attendees of the march had the momentous occasion of racial harmony during an era of bias and struggle cemented into their memories.
“It was just overwhelming,” says Steve Elliot, who spontaneously participated in the march to aid a friend in carrying the National Council of Churches banner. “It just was a sense of Black and white together.”
The now famous protest followed a number of publicized oppressions, wrongful beatings and harsh Jim Crow laws. After the gruesome murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and the 13-month-long Montgomery bus boycott beginning with the arrest of Rosa Parks later that year, the march’s organizers felt that racist discrimination and violent prejudice in the United States had reached the point of crisis.
“The purpose of the march is, by a massive, peaceful and democratic demonstration in the nation’s capital, to provide evidence of the need for the federal government to take effective and immediate action to deal with the national crisis of civil rights and jobs that all of us, Negro and white, are facing,” read Organizing Manual No. 1 for the event.
So the demands of the trailblazing activists read aloud by strategist Bayard Rustin at the summertime march were precise: civil rights legislation, the immediate end to police brutality, equal voting rights, fair employment practices and pay for minorities, and a swift desegregation of schools.
King underlined these demands in the 17-minute speech—initially slotted for 4 minutes—whose final written draft is now on display at NMAAHC in the “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” gallery through September 18. Aaron Bryant, a curator of photography, visual culture and contemporary history at the museum, says the address shows that King in that moment was “actually quite radical.”
“If you read the beginning of the speech, you’ll see that he wasn’t at all passive,” Bryant says. “He ain’t playing, he ain’t joking, he’s not being nice or polite about all of this. If you listen to him give the speech, he’s being pretty tough. He is direct and unflinching in delivering his words.”
Bryant explains that the earlier parts of the charismatic leader’s speech were written to tackle the pressing matters of justice that had long gone unresolved since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed nearly four million enslaved people from bondage. In the words of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, the freedom fighters had mobilized in Washington “to cash a check.”
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” said King, as the final speaker of the march. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.”
The softer, more hopeful tone many remember from King’s speech comes in the improvised portions toward the end, when he repeated his “I have a dream” refrain and shared his aspirations for the future. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King said. “I have a dream today.”
The march’s meticulously planned and executed vocalization of African Americans’ petition for freedom and equality would help push forward the passage of monumental civil rights legislation. Black citizens achieved legal security against voter discrimination and the ban on segregation in public facilities with the passing of two champion bills, the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, which were enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Nonetheless, King’s “dream” of equality for all continues to be a work in progress.
In the face of racial injustices like the 2020 killing of George Floyd by police, debates on teaching critical race theory in school curriculums and the recent limiting of diversity in higher education with the Supreme Court ruling to end affirmative action, activists mobilized this past weekend to mark the march’s 60th anniversary while looking forward. At the event, King’s family and the Reverend Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, emphasized the need to continue the fight for civil rights and equality.
“This march, because it is one tool of many, we are collectively using [as] an opportunity to recenter and engage the movement following a disastrous term after Supreme Court decisions and the continued erosion of our rights by legislators and courts across the country,” read the protest’s web announcement. “This collaborative effort centers on communities, their voices, and young people.”
This need to address the current state of race relations in America is what lifelong political activist and radio talk show and podcast host Marc Steiner says makes the march still relevant after six decades.
“While we no longer have lynchings in America, we have mass incarceration and no jobs. The struggle hasn’t ended. It’s just shifted,” Steiner says.
An affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in his youth and an attendee of the 1963 march, Steiner has monitored the progressions of racial solidarity and social justice across the country for many years. “Clearly things have changed. Barack Obama was president,” he says. “Some of the greatest leaders and minds of America come out of the Black world, and have taken hold, and all that’s incredibly important. But we also have to realize the job isn’t finished, because so many people are being left behind. Racism isn’t done yet.”
On August 26, thousands of marchers and leaders from various civil and social groups including Black sorority and fraternity members, veteran civil rights leader Andrew Young Jr., politicians, actors, and owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft convened at the Lincoln Memorial for five hours to continue the conversations on human rights and equality that began 60 years ago.
Speakers expounded on the topics of immigration, voter suppression, women’s rights and gun violence. The demands echoed rallying cries heard at past civil rights gatherings, with speakers like Sharpton shouting the popular ’80s slogan “No justice!” and the masses responding with a loud “No peace!”
Longtime activist Ramona Hoage Edelin hopes the spirit of momentum and unity from the march can be recaptured for this generation as the rally commemorates 60 years.
Edelin, who serves as senior advisor to the D.C. Charter School Alliance and is credited with introducing the term “African American” into everyday speech in the late ’80s, recalls saving up her money in the summer of 1963 to take a bus trip from Atlanta to Washington to attend the march she says everybody was chattering about.
“To experience that unity, and to know that we could do it and we did do it, helped to contribute to the sense of inevitability that we would be victorious in the struggle,” says Edelin, who worked for King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. “And at that time, we had not achieved the victories of ’64 and ’65. There was sort of a sense of destiny involved in it, and the march was very much a part of that momentum and feeling of inevitability that we were going to achieve these things despite the odds. And the odds were tremendous.”