Behind the March on Washington
A 40th Anniversary Look at the Struggles to Stage the Event

audio iconListen to Morning Edition audio.

ListenListen to an excerpt of the Rev. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

ListenHear remarks at the event by March on Washington organizer A. Philip Randolph.

ListenListen to remarks at the demonstration by John Lewis, a march leader who later became a congressman.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.
Credit: © Bettmann/ CORBIS

Crowd at the Reflecting Pool

The March on Washington drew an estimated 250,000 people to the nation's capital.
Credit: National Archives

Participants Remember the March

audio icon Joy Bauer, a Jewish woman who grew up in Pensacola, Fla., traveled to the march as a student. She describes her background and upbringing, which in part, prompted her to attend the march.

audio icon The Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who was a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and later served in Congress, describes some of the challenges in planning a peaceful march, including dealing with a sabotaged sound system.

audio icon Bruce Hartford, a student from Los Angeles and a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He caught a bus down to the march from his parents' house in New Haven, Conn., and describes the ride and anxiety surrounding the march.

audio icon Andrew Young was an assistant to King and later served as Atlanta's mayor and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He discusses King's approach to the civil rights struggle.

March organizer and labor leader A. Philip Randolph

March organizer and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, photographed at the Lincoln Memorial, convinced John Lewis to tone down his remarks.
Credit: National Archives

Aug. 22, 2003 -- The Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington is remembered for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream Speech" and the unexpectedly large crowd that was on hand to listen. As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark civil rights event, NPR's Juan Williams reports on the story behind the march.

"In the last 40 years, the March on Washington has taken on a golden halo in the nation's memory," Williams reports in the first of three reports on the march. "It's now the prime example of Americans peacefully petitioning their government for change."

But the outward appearance of unity masked divisions over the march by top civil rights groups. Young black militants predicted it would be nothing but a picnic at the Lincoln Memorial; older black leaders thought it might end in violence. On the night before the march, the speaker system was sabotaged. Meanwhile, the Kennedy White House and the Congress opposed it too, fearing riots.

Labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph first proposed a march on the capital in 1941. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt convinced Randolph to call off a massive civil rights march by agreeing to allow blacks to work in factories supplying America's military.

Twenty years later, Randolph was still active in civil rights when the idea of the march was revived. Nineteen sixty-three was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But more importantly, the fight for racial equality in the South was stalled. King was facing police dogs and fire hoses as he tried to integrate stores and restaurants in Birmingham, Ala.

King was urged to stage a month-long march from the Deep South all the way to Washington. Andrew Young, one of King's top aides, says, "Young people... started talking about marching on Washington, going up Highway 11... even Dr. King thought that was too romantic."

King decided to support a one-day march on the capital. When it was announced that King was joining the march, other civil rights leaders felt they had to be there. The White House also changed its mind and decided to support the march. Kennedy encouraged white organizations to become involved -- including the United Auto Workers, Jewish groups and the Catholic church. He wanted to make sure it would not be an all-black affair.

The White House remained concerned about a speech to be given by John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis' speech called for civil rights activists to march through the South, like the Union Army's Gen. Sherman -- the man who burned down Atlanta. The administration demanded Lewis tone down his speech.

It took a personal appeal from Randolph on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to convince Lewis to change the text. Randolph "appealed to me and said, 'John we've come so far together, let's stay together. For the sake of unity make these changes... Delete the reference to Sherman. And you couldn't say no to A. Philip Randolph."

There had been arguments among the civil rights leaders about who would speak and for how long. King agreed to limit his remarks to four minutes and speak last. Leaders of other civil rights groups figured they had out-maneuvered King because TV cameramen would depart by mid-afternoon to prepare for their nightly newscasts. But to their surprise, the network cameras and the crowd waited to hear from King.

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...

"As King spoke in clipped poetic phrases, shortened to meet the time limit put on the speech the crowd began to repeat his catch phrases about freedom and dreams," Williams reports. "Even on a stifling August afternoon, King's words soared. By this time, he had dropped his script and was improvising."

All the threats of violence melted away with King's powerful words. He went over the four-minute limit, speaking for 16 minutes.

On Monday, Williams reports on the people who traveled by bus, train, car and even roller skates to the march. And in the third part of his series, he reports Tuesday on the music of the era with a focus on "People Get Ready," a Curtis Mayfield song that has been recorded by dozens of artists.

In Depth

moreFollow NPR coverage of the 40th anniversary of 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.

moreJune 30, 2003: NPR's Tavis Smiley speaks with the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, about the 40th anniversary of the June 1963 Walk to Freedom led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

moreFeb. 20, 2002: A Tavis Smiley Show interview about the 1963 March on Washington with author Taylor Branch.

moreAug. 25, 2000: On the 37th anniversary of the March on Washington, protesters urge an end to racial profiling in law enforcement.

moreFeb. 11, 2002: Exlore a Present at the Creation feature on the history of the Lincoln Memorial.

Other Resources

  • Information on ceremonies commemorating the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington

  • An excerpt from 'The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.' on the March on Washington

  • The National Park Service's site on historic places of the civil rights movement features the Lincoln Memorial.

  • Read the text of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (Adobe Acrobat required)

  • Read the official program to the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at the National Archives Web site.

  • Learn about A. Philip Randolph, a leading organizer of the March on Washington.

  • Read about Bayard Taylor Rustin, who worked with Randolph on the march, at the Library of Congress Web site.

  • Read the text of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)'s speech commemorating the march's 40th anniversary. Lewis was a speaker at the 1963 event.