'Now is the Time'
King's Call for Action Was Highlight of March on Washington

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd at the March on Washington.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.
Credit: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

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A girl looks on at the March on Washington.

A young participant in the March on Washington.
Credit: National Archives

The official program to the March on Washington.

The official program to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Credit: National Archives

» Read the program.

Aug. 28, 2003 -- Forty years ago today, 250,000 people gathered in the nation's capital to demand equal rights for African Americans. The March on Washington, with the sheer size of its crowd and the powerful words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was considered the historical tipping point in the struggle for civil rights.

In the final part of his series on the anniversary of the march, NPR's Juan Williams presents highlights of the speeches delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.

"Racial tensions were rising into violence across the nation," Williams reports. "Big cities in the North were fearful of riots. Martin Luther King Jr. had been jailed in Alabama. NAACP leader Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi. Civil rights workers were going into small towns, risking brutality and jail to shine a light on violence that oppressed black people. The White House and the Congress feared the march would degenerate into an angry, violent mob."

A. Philip Randolph, the chief organizer of the march, addressed that fear, declaring: "We are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom."

Labor leader Walter Reuther, referring to President Kennedy's famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate earlier that summer, said: "Let us understand that we cannot defend freedom in Berlin so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham."

NAACP chief Roy Wilkins added levity to the day's serious message. He urged Congress to pass "an effective civil rights bill... We salute those from the South who want to vote for it but don't dare to do so. And we say to those people, 'Just give us a little time, and one of these days we'll emancipate you."

King gave the final speech of the day, recalling the 100 years that had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time..."

In Depth

moreFollow NPR coverage of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.

moreAug. 22, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on the struggles to organize the March on Washington.

moreAug. 25, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on the people who traveled to the march.

moreAug. 26, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready,' the song inspired by the march.

MoreNPR coverage of Martin Luther King's speeches and sermons

MoreNPR coverage of other civil rights anniversaries

MoreWeb resources on the March on Washington