By William P. Jones
On Aug. 28, 1963, the March on Washington, featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, became the touchstone of the American civil rights movement. But our focus on one man and one speech has obscured some of the history and meaning of the event. As we mark this milestone, let’s take a closer look at popular misconceptions about what brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington 50 years ago.
1. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the march.
The March on Washington was initiated and directed by A. Philip Randolph, a 74-year-old black labor leader who first called for a march on the Capitol to protest employment discrimination in 1941. Though that event never happened, Randolph’s organization, the Negro American Labor Council, initiated another protest in January 1963, then reached out to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights and labor groups.
This iconic protest had many fathers. In addition to Randolph and King, the 10 official chairmen of the event included John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as another labor leader and three religious leaders. The National Council of Negro Women also supported the march, but Randolph and other male leaders refused to include its president, Dorothy Height, in the official leadership. Despite vigorous protest from black women, they insisted that women could be represented by men.
2. The main goal of the march was to eliminate Jim Crow laws.
Marchers demanded equal access to public accommodations, housing, education and voting rights, but in an official list of demands, they also called on federal authorities to create “meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages” for unemployed workers and raise the minimum wage to a level that would “give all Americans a decent standard of living.”