The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, where King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, where King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. AFP/Getty Images
The official program to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The official program to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. National Archives
Read more about the civil rights protest, including a look behind the scenes at the struggles over staging the event and interviews with people who traveled from around the country to take part.
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A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the historic March on Washington, met with President John F. Kennedy in August 1963. Kennedy had unsuccessfully tried to get Randolph to call off the march.
March on Washington leaders (from left) Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President John F. Kennedy, Walter Reuther and Roy Wilkins met at the White House in August 1963. Behind Reuther is Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy had unsuccessfully tried to get Randolph to call off the march. Three Lions/Getty Images
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his thunderous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington 45 years ago this week, he did so before the largest political gathering the nation had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people had descended on the capital for an event that would later be recognized as the tipping point in the fight for civil rights.
What's often overlooked is the fact that the march was supposed to have taken place more than 20 years earlier.
On the eve of World War II, African Americans in the North had achieved real political leverage. But in the South, they had been almost completely disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation. Many blacks also were shut out of government and defense industry jobs. Philip Randolph was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a black labor union. He and union Vice President Milton Webster wanted to put an end to the discrimination.
"Brother Randolph says to me, 'We ought to get 10,000 Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue and protest,'" Webster recalled in independent producer Alan Lipke's documentary series Between Civil War and Civil Rights.
That threat led to meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Webster said was alarmed by the idea of such a march.
"He said, 'We can't have 100,000 Negroes marching on Washington. You wouldn't be able to manage them; we might have bloodshed and death. What do you want me to do?' I said, 'We want you to issue an executive order, abolishing discrimination in munitions jobs and also in the government.'"
Webster said Roosevelt told him that first he had to call off the march. Webster responded, "That, Mr. President, I can't do. The people would consider that I had betrayed them. He said, 'Will you march against the president of the United States?' I said we have no other alternative."
The negotiations went on for months.
In June 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee, and Randolph agreed not to march on Washington.
Seven years later, with the Cold War looming, a similar scene played out with another president.
Randolph again threatened to hold demonstrations unless President Harry Truman took action to end segregation in the U.S. armed forces.
"I told him that Negroes today were in no mood to shoulder a gun again to fight for democracy abroad until they got democracy at home," Randolph said in Between Civil War and Civil Rights.
Truman agreed to integrate the military, so Randolph called off the march.
Years later, President John F. Kennedy tried to get Randolph to cancel the march a third time. Kennedy failed, and more than 200,000 demonstrators massed in Washington to rail against high unemployment and low wages for blacks. On Aug. 28, 1963, it finally became a reality. Randolph marched with King the day he told the crowd he had a dream.