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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

by Bill Benson

August 29, 2013

     Back in my preschool years, I and my brothers listened to a stack of 45 rpm records again and again. One was “Oh Danny Boy,” another was Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” but a favorite was Mahalia Jackson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Her amazing voice mesmerized me then, just five-years-old, and still does.

     This Wednesday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and Mahalia Jackson was there. She sang “How I Got Over,” possibly “I’ve Been ‘Buked and Scorned,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

     Behind that march lay two decades of planning. A. Philip Randolph, the dean of civil rights leaders, first planned a rally during Roosevelt’s administration, in 1941, but he called it off after FDR relented and prohibited further discrimination among the defense contractors.

     Yet, the discrimination persisted. “In the spring of 1963, the rate of unemployment for whites was 4.8 percent. For nonwhites it was 12.1 percent.” The blacks understood that the whites excluded them from the best paying jobs, and they saw the connection between the economic opportunity that a job represented and civil rights. Hence, their march was for “Jobs and Freedom.”

     Also in the spring of 1963, President Kennedy called the civil rights leaders—A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—into the White House and asked them to discontinue their plans for the march. “They politely rebuffed him.” This time they would march.

     The civil rights leader Bayard Rustin built a successful organization of staff and volunteers, and he expected 100,000 people to gather next to the Washington Monument and then march west beside the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. There the people would listen to speakers who would demand that Congress pass civil rights legislation. King said that the march would “arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro.”

     People in Washington D. C. were terrified. Law enforcement officials called it Operation Steep Hill. Helicopters were fueled and ready. Sales of alcohol were banned. The law authorities and the courts expected a number of arrests, and in case of an inflammatory speech, they installed a kill switch on the microphone, and were prepared to play Mahalia Jackson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

     None of that happened, even though over 200,000 people arrived that day, including 60,000 whites.

     Ten people spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. The first was A. Philip Randolph, who said, “We know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.” Mahalia Jackson’s songs captivated the audience, and then the final speaker, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood behind the microphone.

     That morning he was undecided about what he would say. In 1963 he gave 350 speeches and used similar words and ideas in most of them. Like most Baptist preachers, he could cut and paste as he spoke, incorporating certain phrases and words and dropping others from his prepared text.

     He said, “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” The founding fathers “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . . . It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note. . . . America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

     Mahalia Jackson, who stood only twenty feet away, called out to King. “Tell them about the dream.” Often she performed with Martin Luther King, Jr., and months before in Detroit she had heard him talk about his dream. King laid aside his text, and someone nearby said, “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” King continued,

     “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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. 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.”

      When he would pause, the crowd would remain silent, but then they would stir when he would say again, “I have a dream.” His was sweeping oratory, mixing Biblical themes and the founding fathers’ words, and overlooking his shoulder was the huge statue of Abraham Lincoln, seated on a chair, his arms stretched forward, resting on the armrests. It is a moment etched in most Americans’ minds. Like Lincoln before him, King may not have had the whole world, but he had his audience in his hands.

     Historians rank King’s “I have a dream” speech the second best in America’s history, just behind Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and both men were assassinated, as was Kennedy three months later.


     “Let freedom ring!” King said, as he closed his speech and the march that day. May it ever be so.