On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people participated in the largest event of the Civil Rights movement: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The origins of the march go back to World War II, when companies in the defense industry refused to hire black employees. In 1941, civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized a march on Washington, pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take action. When Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act, which prohibited discrimination in federal agencies, Randolph and Rustin called off the march.
In response to continued discrimination during the postwar years, civil rights leaders met annually to press for economic equality and basic civil rights for African Americans. Demonstrations, marches, and landmark court cases throughout the 1950s and 1960s amplified the demand for equal rights. But by 1963, limited access to equal education and job opportunities determined the economic outlook for many African Americans. The average black family earned $3,500 a year, while the average white family earned $6,500. Moreover, the events of 1963 -- especially the white resistance to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts to integrate Birmingham -- inspired Randolph and Rustin to organize a second march on Washington.
Prominent black leaders, including Roy Wilkins (NAACP), James Farmer (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Whitney Young Jr. (Urban League), and Dr. King (SCLC), agreed to join forces. The focus of the proposed one-day march would be to demand passage of the civil rights bill that President Kennedy had introduced in June. Kennedy eventually lent his support to the march, and black and white groups from across the nation were encouraged to attend.
Surveys indicate that about 15 percent of the participants were students, about 25 percent were white, and a majority of the black participants were middle class citizens from northern cities. Estimates of the crowd size range from 200,000 to 500,000 people from all over the country.
The day was filled with speeches and song, focusing on the injustices of inequality and the hope of freedom. No women were invited to speak. Instead, march leaders opted for a "Tribute to Women," in which Rustin introduced Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates (NAACP leader from Little Rock who advised the Little Rock Nine), Diane Nash, Gloria Richardson (a leader from Cambridge, Maryland), and Mrs. Herbert Lee (widow of a slain Mississippi activist) and mentioned Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers's widow. At the end of the afternoon, Dr. King delivered the closing address, his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
However, the unity and harmony of the day did not last. Three weeks later, a racially motivated bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church killed four young black girls. President Johnson would continue to press for passage of the civil rights bill after President Kennedy was assassinated in November.
On July 2, 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities.