On August 28, 1963, people poured into Washington, D.C. Many held signs: “We March for Integrated Schools Now!” and “We Demand Jobs for All Now!”
The event was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It drew about 250,000 people. They were calling on the United States government to pass laws guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans. At the Lincoln Memorial, they heard Martin Luther King Jr. give one of the most important speeches in our nation’s history.
ON THE HORIZON The 1963 March on Washington was one of the largest civil rights gatherings in U.S. history.
PAUL SCHUTZER—THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. He became a minister and moved to Montgomery, Alabama. He preached often about his dream of equality for all. But in the 1950s, segregation was a fact of life in many parts of the country, especially in the South.
In 1955, an African-American teenager named Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. She had refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Rosa Parks was arrested soon after for a similar act of protest. This led to a yearlong boycott of public buses in Montgomery. It also led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned segregated seating on buses.
In April 1963, King helped lead a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. He was arrested and jailed. That only motivated him. A few months later, he joined other civil rights leaders for the March on Washington. It was organized by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. Many leaders spoke before King. His speech lasted 18 minutes.
“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” King said toward the end. “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.”
“He was preaching from his heart,” says John Lewis. He is now a U.S. congressman in Georgia.
VOICE OF FREEDOM Martin Luther King Jr. gives the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
The March on Washington showed Americans the power of peaceful protest. The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It banned discrimination.
Maxine Allen Johnson Wood took part in the March on Washington. She had just graduated from college. She says King’s dream is still important today. “The image that he gave was [of] a future. And it wasn’t beyond our reality to think that [it] could happen.”
King’s words continue to inspire people around the world. “Of all the gifts [he gave us], the greatest has been the belief in society’s ability to change and the power each of us has to effect that change,” Lewis says.
Left to right: Joan Baez, Rachel Robinson, Nan Orrock, John Lewis
JEFF HUTCHENS—GETTY IMAGES; GREGORY SMITH—AP PHOTO; THOS ROBINSON—GETTY IMAGES; RICH FURY—GETTY IMAGES
What was it like to attend the March on Washington? TIME magazine spoke with people who were there. They remember how King led the crowd in raising a voice for equality.
Joan Baez, Singer
“I’d never seen anything like it. I remember the electricity in the air.”
Rachel Robinson, The Jackie Robinson Foundation
“We were looking for leadership, and he was offering it.”
Nan Orrock, State Senator
“I resolved at that moment . . . I was going to be a part of changing the country.”
John Lewis, Congressman
“There was so much hope, so much optimism after the March on Washington.”