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History of the March

Throughout history, blacks were beaten and harassed for no apparant reason. In 1963 black unemployment was high, with blacks at 11%, while whites only at 6%. A white family earned, on average, about $6,500 a year, a black family earned $3,500 a year. Blacks knew that these statistics had to change, or else serious consequences would occur. Not only would the discrimination continue, but they would have nothing to live on.

Originally, a Negro activist, A Philip Randolph, planned a march in 1941, but the war (WWII) gave blacks more jobs. This march was extremely close to occurring. Shortly before the day of it, he met with Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and agreed to issue an executive order declaring that, "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of the race, creed, color or national origin." Executive Order 8802 represented the U.S. government's most stringent civil rights action since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In return, Randolph called off the protest march.

Randolph was the civil rights movement's elder statesmen. In 1963, the 74 year old was an active member. He was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a union of black porters who worked on the country's trains. Back in 1925, when Randolph founded the BSCP, there were no railway unions open to blacks. They traveled from station to station throughout the country. The porters organized not only for labor, but for civil rights as well.

Taking Action

Randolph and his colleague, Bayard Rustin, met with labor and civil rights leaders to plan an August 28th march, to be called the "March on Washington". They agreed to expand the goals of the march to include demands for passage of the Civil Rights Act; integration of public schools by the year's end; enactment of a fair employment practices bill prohibiting job discrimination; and the original demand for job training and placement. Knowing that this may be the best chance they get, they realized that a successful march was imperative.

As expected, there was much criticism for such a major event, with many disbelievers of its potential. President Kennedy tried to persuade the civil rights leaders to call off the march, arguing that there is a good chance of violence. He, also, felt that having such a demonstration could delay and possibly hurt their hopes for having the civil rights bill passed. The president suggested that they should stay off the streets, and prove themselves as unthreatening as possible. After learning about the determination and persistence of the leaders to carry through with the march, however, Kennedy reluctantly endorsed the cause.

Remembering the president's standpoint in 1963, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division explains, "The fact that he took that attitude rather than the attitude of almost everyone else in the Senate and Congress... made no difference to the character of the march, because if he had opposed it, it would have been more of a rebellious type if march." In other words, this march was bound to happen, no matter who or what the opposition was, but having the President's backing was definitely beneficial to the cause.

The march's themes became unity, racial harmony, and especially, a cry to "Pass the Bill". Appointed by the March on Washington Committee, deputy of director of the event, Bayard Rustin, had the job of working out the logistics. He hoped that 100,000 marchers would participate. He recollects, "We wanted to get everybody, from the whole country, into Washington by 9 o'clock in the morning and out of Washington by sundown. This required all kinds of things that you had to think through. You had to think how many toilets you needed, where they should be. Where is your line of march? We had to consult doctors on exactly what people should bring to eat so that they wouldn't get sick... We had to arrange from drinking water. We had to arrange what we would do if there was a terrible thunderstorm that day. We had to think of the sound system."