Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March took place on 28 August 1963, at a time in which the civil rights movement became much more prevalent despite non-violent protests being repressed. The March and the famous speech -“I Have A Dream” which is considered to be one of the most important speeches of the 20th century- that followed it marked a turning point in the civil rights equality movement. So, what has changed since that day?
To begin with, let’s take a look at Martin Luther King’s background and his achievements since he became a crucial figure in the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and a social activist who became the indisputable leader of the civil rights movement during the 1950’s and onwards until his death in 1968. He became the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was an organization that aimed to put an end to police brutality based on race on public transportation. He then co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 which set non-violence as its guiding principle. This was followed by his most prominent achievement which was the March On Washington and the following “I Have A Dream” speech that had an audience of 200.000 people. The speech was broadcasted and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. He was then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year for his “non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population”
He was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which achieved great victories for the fight for racial equality. Finally, King played a vital role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1945 which was signed into law by President Johnson. With this Act, the obstacles put in place to prevent African-Americans from voting-such as literacy and property tests were outlawed in several Southern states.
Despite the March On Washington stemming from the ideas of A. Phillip Randolph, a trade unionist (the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters) and a civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. became widely associated with the event thanks to his speech. The March was mainly seen as a protest for the inequality of employment opportunities for black people in which important historical figures addressed the press and the live audience. The March was attended by key figures such as James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins , and Whitney Young, who are all leaders of civil rights groups.
King was scheduled to give the last speech to the audience gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Little did they know that they were about to witness the most influential speech ever given that was to forever change race relations to this day. Although being given 4 minutes to speak, King exceeded that time with a burning passion by 12 minutes. Thus, King managed to put his vision of a racially unified America into words in the form of a 16 minute speech.
So what has changed since the March and King’s speech? The immediate changes were made by the Johnson administration by confirming the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was seen as a turning point in the history of the fight for racial equality since African-Americans were considered second-class citizens until their voices were finally heard with King as facilitator. Thus, these bills successfully outlawed segregation in public transportation and removed the obstacles put in place for the disenfranchisement of Afro-Americans.
"I Have A Dream" speech influenced the US government to take more direct actions to achieve racial equality by its members fully comprehending the grandiosity of this issue. It was now acknowledged as not only an issue concerning the Southern states but rather identified as a country-wide issue. This was considered to be a very eye opening speech for the majority of US citizens as well.
The march was held precisely 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by the early US President Abraham Lincoln. Despite initially emancipating most African-Americans living as slaves in the US, the Proclamation has failed to reach its purpose. As a result, the March could be seen as an echo of the demands of black americans.
One of the most remarkable sentences from King’s speech was:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Followed closely by:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. [...] that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
However, these changes seem to have been short-lived. Today, according to pewresearch.org, only seven-in-ten black people in the U.S are eligible to vote compared with 72% of all people living in the country which deems insufficient. Again, according to a research conducted by pewresearch.org in 2022 about six-in-ten black adults say racism and police brutality are extremely big problems for black people in the U.S. today.
On the other hand, racism became an act that is now frowned upon in modern society whereas it would have easily been overlooked 60 years ago. King’s speech might have even paved the way for the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as Black Americans started to gain prevalent roles in the society.
Here’s how the anniversary of the march and speech were celebrated in the U.S:
Firstly, the US President Joe Biden hosted the civil rights advocates and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House for the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. Biden stated that to this day, “We continue the march forward.”, indicating that the way paved by King was not to be buried deep down.
Secondly, thousands commemorated the day by gather at the Lincoln Memorial 60 years later to celebrate the anniversary of the March. This gathering was organized by the Drum Major Institute with the aim of paying homage to the march and the “dream” by marching from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial. Other events aimed at paying respects to the late Reverend, such as visiting his crypt, followed.
To conclude, the fight for civil rights for African-Americans was not an easy one. However, by looking back on the memorable day, one can see that we have come a long way to this day. Despite still facing insurmountable amounts of racism, the fight for equality has come to a place in which no return to the old days is possible. Which, on its own, is a great achievement in American history to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Britannica- Martin Luther King, Jr. summary
- Britannica- March on Washington
- NAACP- The 1963 March on Washington
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund- Reflecting on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- U.S Embassy- Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have A Dream Speech (1963)
- U.S Department of Labor- Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Nobel Prize- Martin Luther King, Jr. Facts
- NAACP- Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Britannica- A. Phillip Randolph
- National Museum Of American History- Legacy and Impact of the March
- Pewresearch- Key Facts About Black Eligible Voters in 2022
- Live Now Fox- Biden Commemorating 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington: 'We Continue the March Forward'
- CBS News- On the March on Washington's 60th anniversary, watch how CBS News covered the Civil Rights protest in 1963