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Martin Luther King Jr. 'I Have a Dream' Speech Anniversary: Who Organized the March on Washington?

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. While King and his speech may be the most well-known part of the event, bringing the concept of the march to fruition was a group effort.

While the march was organized about three months out, according to the National Parks Service (NPS), the idea was more than 20 years in the making and began with A. Philip Randolph. 

Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American trade union, in 1925. Originally part of the American Federation of Labor, Britannica explained that following its first major contract win with the Pullman Company in 1937, Randolph moved the brotherhood to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  Displeased with how African Americans were being treated in the federal government and various other industries, Randolph devised a plan to lead a march on Washington, D.C.

Randolph gave then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced warning of his plans, leading the president to issue Executive Order 8802 and the cancellation of the march. The executive order barred the discrimination of workers in defense industries or government based on race, creed, color or national origin. It also established a Fair Employment Practice Committee, created to investigate complaints of discrimination.

An advocate for equal treatment in the armed forces, Randolph planned a second large-scale march in 1948, which led to then-President Harry S. Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, the desegregation of the armed forces. Once again, Randolph canceled the large-scale demonstration. 

By 1963, Randolph began planning a third march as a public expression to dissatisfaction with how African Americans were being treated in the United States. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Randolph was appointed the march’s director and Bayard Rustin, whom he'd worked with in the past, was made his deputy, according to the National Museum of American History.

Rustin, a civil rights activist and pacifist, had already organized a massive non-violent march in England against nuclear weapons and was given responsibility for handling all of the day-to-day planning of the march. His tasks included training “marshals” on nonviolent techniques of crowd control to organizing porta-potties and ensuring that the sound system was working properly, according to the NPS. 

bayard rustin march on washington African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin talks to a reporter during the Harlem Riots in New York City on July 23, 1964. Rustin was a primary organizer of the March on Washington in 1963. Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Having experience in organizing nonviolent demonstrations, Rustin created an Organizing Manual to establish structure and coordinated with over 200 civil rights activities to raise awareness, funds and arrange transportation. Rustin paid such a close attention to detail that he even advised people on what lunches they should pack for the day. By the time the march was being planned, Rustin had worked alongside King for years, introducing him to the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi and serving jail time for his activism, according to PBS.

Rustin, who had publically come out as homosexual and even been jailed for it, opened up about his sexuality in the 1980s and brought the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP.

“Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true,” PBS reported he said.  “The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”

While Rustin and Randolph were the principal organizers of the march, they were joined by the “Big Six,” a coalition made up of six national civil rights leaders that united to organize the demonstration. Along with King and Randolph, the National Museum of American History explained the four other members included:

  • John Lewis, Director, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
  • Whitney Young, Executive Director, National Urban League (NUL)
  • James L. Farmer Jr., National Director, Congress of Racial Equality
  • Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Civil Rights Civil rights leaders meeting with then-President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House following the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Library of Congress/Handout/Reuters

Although not part of the “Big Six” group, the NPS pointed out that Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women was instrumental in the planning, but operated in the background of the male-dominated group. She was an arm’s length away from King when he delivered his famous speech at the march but The New York Times explained she was not asked to speak despite being a prize-winning orator.  

“Ms. Height, the only woman to work regularly alongside them on projects of national significance, was very much the unheralded seventh, the leader who was cropped out, figuratively and often literally, of images of the era,” The New York Times wrote.

An estimated 100,000 people were expected to attend the march. In reality, the NPS estimated that 250,000 people attended, including 190,000 African-Americans. Almost 12,000 police officers and national guardsmen were mobilized, but there were no incidents reported by police.  

Randolph delivered the opening remarks and called the March on Washington a “new beginning” for all Americans who “thirst for freedom and a better life.” Lewis, Young, Farmer and Wilkins also all gave speeches on that day, leading up to King, who gave his last. During his speech, Wilkins was tasked with delivering the news that W. E. B. Du Bois, who co-founded the NAACP, passed away the day before the march.

After the three-hour long program at the Lincoln Memorial, march leaders met with then-President John F. Kennedy, who previously expressed his concern that the demonstration could hinder a Civil Rights Bill making its way through Congress. Kennedy later voiced his support for the march and discussed the challenges and the future of the civil rights movement with the march leaders during their meeting.