When civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph proposed a civil rights march in Washington for the summer of 1963, no one knew how large the crowd would be. The number would eventually rise above 200,000 people.
The March on Washington
LESTER HOLT reporting:
In June of 1963 civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph had a proposition for President Kennedy.
Rep. JOHN LEWIS: He said Mr. President the black masses are restless and we are going to march on Washington. You could tell by the body language of President Kennedy he didn’t like what he heard. He started moving, moving around in his chair and he said Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington there would be chaos, disorder, and we would never get a civil rights bill through the congress. Mr. Randolph exploded and said Mr. President this will be an orderly peaceful nonviolent protests. President Kennedy sort of said well, we have problems but the problems are made by man and we can solve them.
HOLT: The march was set for August 28, 1963.
CHARLES J.OGLETREE Jr. (Havard Law School): There was an air of expectation that something momentous was going to happen, no one knew what it would be.
Rep LEWIS: We were deeply concerned that maybe we would not be enough people that would have an impact.
NARRATOR: No one was sure just what would happen if the predicted 100,000-plus did come to Washington so, just incase, all security measures were undertaken. A major factor, national guardsman backing up the full Washington police force, all under careful instructions just what to do. They were out early this morning, not committed to the streets but ready to act if the worst happened were regular Army and Marine troops too. At union station practically in the shadow of the capital where they are seeking the redress for their grievances, the first people arrived early this morning.
HOLT: More than 200,000 people crowded beneath the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. A special NBC News program airing that evening recapped the historic day.
ANCHOR: A multitude of Negros and whites moved on Washington today as what is easily the most massive demonstration ever seen in the capital or in the nation. There were no ranks but they were orderly they moved with dignity but there was no sternness. Their placards demanded the out moving of ever vestige of discrimination and said it must be done now but they showed no anger. Regardless of all else for most these will be the lasting impressions of the march on Washington for jobs and freedom.
HOLT: When Martin Luther King took the podium it soon became clear that history was about to be made.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: (From File Footage): I have a dream today.
Rep. LEWIS: I’ve heard Dr. King speak on so many occasions, but on that day he spoke from his gut, he poured out his soul. He transformed those steps into modern day pool pit.
OGLETREE: There hasn’t been another moment like that in America’s history, where one person has captivated in the whole nation and indeed the world with the sense of hope and inspiration. And that speech did it in 1963 and he was ingenious.
KING: (From File Footage) Thank god almighty we are free at last.
Rep. LEWIS: I think it represented one of the finer hours in American history. It was black and white, young and old, rich and poor, it was a wonderful day.
HOLT: But the harmony demonstrated in Washington that day was tragically short lived. Just a few weeks later a bomb exploded at the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham Alabama. A focal point in the civil rights movement -four little girls were killed.
Rep. LEWIS: It was one of the lowest points, lowest moments. But we believed in nonviolence, we didn’t become bitter, we didn’t become hostile. We didn’t tell people to go out and strike back. We had to go out and work so what happened in Birmingham maybe, maybe will never ever happen again.
WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of people from across the nation gathered at the National Mall Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and to rally for what they believe is the unfinished business of the civil rights battle.
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