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Behind the March on Washington - 1963

August through mid-September 2013

This late summer exhibit (on display from August through mid-September 2013) on the 7th floor of the New York State Library commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  The State Library display explored the events that led up to the march through the use images and quotations from resources in the Library's collections.

The Decision to March: The Men Behind the March

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The 1963 March on Washington was the product of the collective effort of two men, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice-president of the AFL-CIO, and Bayard Rustin, one of the pioneers of the Freedom Ride movement and master organizer of the Civil Rights movement.

Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979). The "Father of the Civil Rights Movement" had threatened a mass demonstration in 1941 if President Roosevelt failed to take action to end segregation in federal employment and military service.  Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 that established the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practices. The National centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation and the state of race relation prompted Randolph to encourage another demonstration in Washington. On July 2, 1963, Randolph invited civil rights leaders to join him at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to discuss the potential for a March on Washington.

"Why is it necessary to have the march on Washington?  Why is it that we have the civil rights revolution? The reason for the existence of the civil rights revolution is that Negroes are not yet fully free." – A. Philip Randolph, 1963

"Those who deplore our militancy, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation ...The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life."
– A. Philip Randolph, 1963


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Bayard Rustin (1910 – 1987). Most leaders of the civil rights movement recognized Rustin was a master strategist. Randolph wanted Rustin to head the efforts to organize the 1963 March. The civil rights community had once abandoned Rustin because of his controversial beliefs and lifestyle. In the 1930's Rustin joined the Young Communist Party; raised a Quaker, during WWII he was jailed because he refused military service. Rustin was an openly gay man who fought for the rights of homosexuals as passionately as he fought for civil rights. (Two on One Cross: The Collected Writing of Bayard Rustin, ed. by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weis; Cleis Press)

"The One Hundred years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation have witnessed no fundamental government action to terminate the economic subordination of the American Negro."
– Bayard Rustin, 1963


The Big Six: The Force Behind the March

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In June 1963 civil rights and labor leaders decided to call for a mass demonstration in Washington to demand a civil rights bill to end discrimination.  The demonstration would be based on the plan formulated by A. Philip Randolph in 1941.
On July 2, Randolph invited leaders of the premier civil rights organizations to the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to work out details of the demonstration. After some preening and sharp elbow blows, six organization leaders remained to formulate a plan that resulted in the 1963 March on Washington.

  • Roy Wilkins, Executive Director, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP). Wilkins convinced the leaders not to hold a Birmingham styled demonstration or a sit-in, but rather a legally sanctioned march. (Standing Fast: The autobiography of Roy Wilkins, by Roy Wilkins; The Viking Press)
  • Whitney Young, President, National Urban League.  Young threw his support behind the march when he got assurances that the march would be, "a general expression of our concern about the problems of unemployment and infringement of uses of civil rights . . . " Whitney Young – 1963 (Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr., by Dennis C. Dickerson; The University Press of Kentucky)
  • John Lewis, President, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Lewis was the youngest member of the Big Six.  The speech he prepared to deliver at the march was so controversial that it almost sabotaged the entire march. Randolph requested he moderate the speech. In the original version Lewis wrote:

    "Listen, Mr. Kennedy, Listen Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.  We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched-earth policy."
    – John Lewis, 1963

    (Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis; Harcourt Brace & Company)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
    "Just as Birmingham had caused President Kennedy to completely reverse his priorities with regard to seeking legislation, so the spirit behind the ensuing march caused him to become a strong ally on its execution. The President's reversal was characterized by a generous and handsome new interest not only in seeing the March take place but in the hope that it would have a solid impact on Congress."
    - Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
  • James L. Farmer, Jr., Co-founder, Congress of Racial Equality. Although he was active and instrumental in the planning process, Farmer did not attend the March because he was jailed in Louisiana for participating in a civil rights demonstration. (Freedom – When?, by James Farmer; Random House)

Racial Upheaval 100 years after Emancipation in America

Segregation in the South and racism in the North threatened the safety and security of black Americans.  The early months of the Emancipation centennial year seemed even more turbulent; every month blacks suffered new attacks against racial equality. The smaller display cases by the elevator (not pictured) focused on several of these events that led up to the March on Washington.

A. George Wallace becomes Governor of Alabama. Standing on the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office to become President of the Confederacy, George C. Wallace concluded his inaugural address with, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." (The Politics of Rage, by Dan T. Carter; Simon & Schuster)

B. The Children's Crusade, Alabama. Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's head of public safety, used Klan members and police to enforce the city's racist practices.  Connor ordered high-powered water hoses turned on hundreds of young black students demonstrating against racism. (But for Birmingham, by Glenn T. Eskew; University of North Carolina Press)

C. Civil Rights Leaders Jailed in Birmingham. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy led a demonstration in defiance of a Wallace/Connor imposed injunction against public demonstration; all were arrested and held on a unique $2,500 bail. (A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth by Andrew M. Manis; University of Alabama Press)

D. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. A Birmingham newspaper printed a letter from local clergy who urged Dr. King to "wait" on integration efforts. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson: Warner Books, Inc.)

"When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters, ...when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro ...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
– Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

E.  Beatings in Winona, Mississippi. June 1963 – Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested at the Winona, Mississippi bus station while returning from voter-registration training in Charleston, South Carolina. Beaten severely by two inmates on orders from law officers, she learned of the death of Medgar Evers on her release.

"All my life I've been sick and tired, now I'm tired of being sick and tired."
– Fannie Lou Hamer, 1963

F. Stance in the Schoolhouse Door. Gov. Wallace refused to allow two qualified black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to register for admission to the University of Alabama. (The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama, by E. Culpeper Clark, Oxford University Press)

"I will never myself submit voluntarily to any integration in a school system in Alabama, [and] ... in fact, there is no time in my judgment when we would be ready for it in my lifetime."
– George Wallace, 1963

G. President Kennedy on Civil Rights. In his first televised address to the nation on the issue of civil rights, Kennedy proposed legislation to end segregation in public facilities. (American Speeches Political Oration from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, Library of America)

"We preach freedom around the world ... and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, ... to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; ... that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?"
– John F. Kennedy. 1963

H. Silenced. Medger Evers, NAACP Field Secretary, gained a national reputation for his tireless efforts against segregation in Mississippi. Evers worked to persuade media outlets to cover the fight against segregation from the perspective of the African American.  On May 20, 1963, WLBT aired a speech by Evers.  Whites were incensed. On June 11, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith ambushed and murderedEvers in the driveway of his home.  De La Beckwith was a member of the White Citizens Council.

Bilbliography of Books on Display

  • The Politics of Rage, by Dan T. Carter; Simon & Schuster
  • But for Birmingham, by Glenn T. Eskew; University of North Carolina Press
  • A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth by Andrew M. Manis; University of Alabama Press
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed by Clayborne Carson: Warner Books, Inc.
  • American Civil Rights Leaders, by Rod L. Harmon: Enslow Publishers
  • American Speeches Political Oration from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, Library of America
  • The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama, by E. Culpeper Clark, Oxford University Press
  • For Us the Living, by Mrs. Medger Evers and William Peters; Doubleday
  • The Autobiography of Medgar Evers,  by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable; Basic Civitas Books
  • Mr. Black Labor: The Story of A. Philip Randolph, Father of the Civil Rights Movement, by Daniel S. Davis; E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
  • When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politics of FEPC, by Herbert Garfinkel; Anthenum Free Press
  • A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard, by Andrew E. Kersten; Roman & Littlefield
  • The World Turned, by John D'Emilio; Duke University Press
  • Lost Prophet: The Life And Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D'Emilio; Free Press
  • Two on One Cross: The Collected Writing of Bayard Rustin, ed by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weis; Cleis Press
  • Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, by Roy Wilkins; The Viking Press
  • Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr., by Dennis C. Dickerson; The University Press of Kentucky
  • Freedom – When?, by James Farmer: Random House
  • Strategies for Freedom: the changing patterns of Black protest, by Bayard Rustin; Columbia University Press
  • The Movement of the New Left 1950-1975: A Brief History with Documents, by Van Gosse; Bedford St. Martin Press

Exhibit curated by Pat Jordan

Last Updated: November 2, 2021