On this day in history, more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. to protest high levels of black unemployment, work that offered most African Americans only minimal wages and poor job mobility, systematic disenfranchisement of many African Americans, and the persistence of racial segregation in the South.
According to historian Taylor Branch, the public was “girded for mayhem”:
NBC’s Meet the Press aired official predictions that it would be “impossible” for Negroes to petition in numbers without civic disorder. A preview in Life magazine surveyed Washington’s “worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.” The Kennedy Administration quietly deployed 4,000 riot troops near downtown, with 15,000 paratroopers on alert. A District of Columbia order banned liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition. Local hospitals stockpiled plasma and canceled elective surgery to save beds. Most federal agencies urged employees to stay home. Eighty percent of private business closed for the day. A week ahead, to be safe, Major League Baseball postponed not one but two home games for the Washington Senators.”
The diverse collection of speakers and performers at the march included singers Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan; Little Rock civil rights veteran Daisy Lee Bates; actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; American Jewish Congress president Rabbi Joachim Prinz; Randolph; UAW president Walter Reuther; march organizer Bayard Rustin; NAACP president Roy Wilkins; National Urban League president Whitney Young and SNCC leader John Lewis. But the high point of the day came when King took the podium toward the end of the event, and delivered what has come to be known as his ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech. (You can listen to that speech here.)
After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House, where they discussed the need for bipartisan support of civil rights legislation.