The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – capped off by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s stirring “I Have A Dream” speech – is regarded today as a key moment in the American Civil Rights movement.
But if most Americans back then had their way, the march would never have taken place.
“According to Gallup polls, 63% of Americans opposed the March on Washington in August of ‘63,” said Richard Filipink, Associate Professor in the Western Illinois University Department of History.
“This idea of it as this seminal American event comes after it’s peaceful, after Kennedy’s assassination, and after the civil rights legislation is passed. Then it becomes part of a successful upward curve for civil rights. At the time, it was seen as potentially divisive and damaging.”
Filipink said there were attempts to stop the march before it even took place, with some of the strongest opposition coming from President John F. Kennedy.
Filipink said once it became clear that Kennedy could not stop the rally, the president insisted on vetting the speeches, and he insisted the march take place in the middle of the week to prevent demonstrators from hanging around Washington DC for an entire weekend.
“They (the administration) didn’t want the potential for any sort of trouble at all to be associated with the march,” Filipink said.
Most demonstrators arrived in Washington on the morning of the rally and were headed back home by evening.
Even though the rally was peaceful and Dr King’s speech impressed many – including President Kennedy – the administration chose to continue pushing a watered-down version of the civil rights bill. Filipink said Kennedy did not want to spend a lot of time or political capital on civil rights in advance of the 1964 election.
But Filipink said after Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, pushed through a much stronger bill. Ironically, he did so by suggesting the stronger bill would be a way of honoring Kennedy.
“Johnson uses Kennedy’s assassination as one of the things to pressure Congress to pass civil rights legislation. In so doing, (Johnson) costs himself credit for what he accomplishes and enhances Kennedy’s legacy, perhaps undeservedly.”
Filipink said many Americans think the march was strictly about civil rights, but he said it was also about the economy and jobs.
“It does have an economic component, and there is an economic component to civil rights,” Filipink said. He believes this year’s celebration of the event focused a bit more on jobs because the American economy continues to struggle.