On August 28, 1963, two weeks before the Birmingham church bombing, 250,000 black and white Americans converged on the nation’s capital for the March on Washington, often considered the high point of the nonviolent civil rights movement. Organized by a coalition of civil rights, labor, and church organizations led by A. Philip Randolph, the black unionist who had threatened a similar march in 1941, it was the largest public demonstration in the nation’s history to that time. Calls for the passage of a civil rights bill pending before Congress took center stage. But the march’s goals also included a public-works program to reduce unemployment, an increase in the minimum wage, and a law barring discrimination in employment. These demands, and the marchers’ slogan, “Jobs and Freedom,” revealed how the black movement had, for the moment, forged an alliance with white liberal groups. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his most famous speech, including the words, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” (See the Appendix for the full text.)

Part of the crowd that gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington to demand “Jobs and Freedom.”

The March on Washington reflected an unprecedented degree of black-white cooperation in support of racial and economic justice. But it also revealed some of the movement’s limitations, and the tensions within it. Even though female activists like Jo Ann Robinson and Ella Baker had played crucial roles in civil rights organizing, every speaker at the Lincoln Memorial was male. The organizers ordered SNCC leader John Lewis (later a congressman from Georgia) to tone down his speech, the original text of which called on blacks to “free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery” and march “through the heart of Dixie the way Sherman did... and burn Jim Crow to the ground.” Lewis’s rhetoric forecast the more militant turn many in the movement would soon be taking.

“Seek the freedom in 1963 promised in 1863,” read one banner at the March on Washington. And civil rights activists resurrected the Civil War-era vision of national authority as the custodian of American freedom. Despite the fact that the federal government had for many decades promoted segregation, blacks’ historical experience suggested that they had more hope for justice from national power than from local governments or civic institutions—home owners’ associations, businesses, private clubs—still riddled with racism. It remained unclear whether the federal government would take up this responsibility.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!