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Background Essay on the March on Washington Movement

This essay describes the history of the March on Washington Movement, from its beginnings in 1941 to the famous 1963 March.

In May 1941, as the United States mobilized for World War II, black labor activist A. Philip Randolph threatened an "'all out' thundering march on Washington" to protest ongoing job discrimination in government agencies and defense industries. Randolph, the founder of the nation's first and largest black labor organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and fellow activist Bayard Rustin used grassroots techniques to found hundreds of March on Washington Movement chapters around the country. Planners estimated that 100,000 people would converge on the nation's capital in July. 

Randolph's plan convinced President Roosevelt to issue an executive order on June 25, 1941, six days before the march was to occur. Declaring "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin," Roosevelt also set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce the order. The planned march was canceled after Roosevelt signed the Fair Employment Act; the armed forces would remain segregated until after the war. 

Although the 1941 march was never held, the activists involved in its planning remained committed to the idea of a national march in Washington, D.C. as a strategy to draw attention to civil rights issues. In 1963, Randolph and Rustin led a coalition of labor and civil rights organizations to hold a 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was instrumental behind the scenes to accommodate the competing demands of the march's participants and to ensure the nationwide grassroots planning to ensure that people showed up. In August of that year, 250,000 people marched on Washington. They convened in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Shortly after the March, President John F. Kennedy announced his support for a civil rights bill. A year later, following Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations based on race. 

The legacy of the March on Washington Movement is evident in many post-1963 political and social movements. Throughout the 1960s, anti-war, anti-poverty, and civil rights groups staged marches in Washington, D.C. In 1995, black leaders held a "Million Man March" and called for "unity, atonement, and brotherhood." Two years later, black women's groups staged a "Million Women's March." In 2010, conservative radio and television personality Glenn Beck drew between 78,000 and 96,000 to a "Rally to Restore America" on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. 

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on the March on Washington Movement,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 15, 2024,

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