Tuesday, August 27, 2013
March on Washington 20th anniversary poster detail. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMarch on Washington 20th anniversary poster detail. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Schlesinger Library is highlighting the papers of several women from our collections who fought for civil rights, some of whom participated in the monumental march on August 28, 1963. It was one of the most successful civil rights demonstrations in the history of America.

Building Up to the March

Pointing out that 1963 marked the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and still racial equality remained a distant dream, a coalition of male leaders known as the “Big Six” began planning a national protest. The movement drew public sympathy throughout the spring of 1963, when a series of protests erupted throughout the country.

In Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrators enacted boycotts to compel leaders to end segregation in public schools, stores, and restaurants. Authorities reacted violently, spraying demonstrators, along with bystanders and children, with high-pressure water hoses, unleashing attack dogs, and arresting hundreds—including Martin Luther King Jr., who became one of the key Big Six organizers of the March on Washington.

Official pennant distributed to all demonstrators at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Ruth Batson Papers, Schlesinger LibraryOfficial pennant distributed to all demonstrators at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Ruth Batson Papers, Schlesinger Library

Media coverage of police brutality at the Birmingham demonstrations—and at protests in Danville, Virginia, and several other cities—attracted attention across the nation and generated more support for the march.

Barbara Deming, a writer, feminist, and civil rights and peace activist, was among those jailed at Birmingham.

Women arrested at Amicus protests, held in Leesburg stockade, August 1963.   Barbara Deming Papers, Schlesinger LibraryWomen arrested at Amicus protests, held in Leesburg stockade, August 1963. Barbara Deming Papers, Schlesinger Library

Weeks before the national march, another event helped engender public sympathy for the national demonstration and civil rights: Earlier in 1963, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) fieldworkers went to Americus, Georgia, to register voters. They discovered that dozens of young civil rights protesters had been arrested and imprisoned without access to medical care or proper sanitation during nonviolent protests.

In mid-August 1963, three SNCC workers and one Congress of Racial Equality worker were arrested and charged with inciting insurrection. Under Georgia law, the action could be punishable by death. The arrests of the “Americus Four” generated widespread attention across the nation and further raised awareness of civil rights, ensuring television coverage of the national March on Washington.

August 28, 1963

The goals of the march, widely distributed to demonstrators, included the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; the immediate end of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; the establishment of a public works program to provide jobs and job training for the unemployed; and the enactment of a federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in both public and private hiring.

Demonstrators walked peacefully from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. Major television networks broadcast coverage of the event. Many entertainers appeared, and Josephine Baker spoke. A “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” honored six remarkable women, including Rosa Parks.

Ruth Batson addresses crowd of civil rights activists, ca.1961. Ruth Batson Papers, Schlesinger LibraryRuth Batson addresses crowd of civil rights activists, ca.1961. Ruth Batson Papers, Schlesinger LibraryBostonian Ruth Batson, a community and civil rights activist, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in this and other protests for racial equity and integration. From 1963 to 1966, she served as chairwoman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and subsequently as assistant director and executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a school integration program.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, the Schlesinger Library is honored to commemorate the event—and the men and women who fought so courageously for racial equity and social justice.

For additional resources on civil rights activism and the March on Washington at the Schlesinger Library, see the papers of June Jordan and Pauli Murray and the transcripts of the Black Women Oral History Project, which includes an interview with Rosa Parks.

Program for SCLC Freedom Rally in Boston, April 1965. Schlesinger LibraryProgram for SCLC Freedom Rally in Boston, April 1965. Schlesinger Library