Revisiting Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and History on the March on Washington

Martin Luther King Speaking-

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The historic win of the Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock in the 2021 Georgia Senate race brings to mind the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “In 2005, Warnock became senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr.’s former congregation; he is the fifth and the youngest person to serve as Ebenezer’s senior pastor since its founding.” Warnock’s election is timely in light of all of the recent racial turmoil and the history of racial discrimination in Georgia. In honor of Dr. Warnock’s election and the upcoming Martin Luther King holiday we would like to repost an article from 2019.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2019 edition of Democracy and Me. It is reprinted this week to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations upon us, it is only proper to write an article focused on Dr. King. The March on Washington offers a unique opportunity to help us appreciate the work and the larger movement King was a part of. The March is a well-known historical event but many people do not know the details surrounding the event. Therefore, in this article we discuss important factors surrounding the event, providing a resource for the general public and for classrooms to delve further into the topic.  

The March
The March on Washington was a Civil Rights demonstration led by Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil rights leaders staged in Washington D.C. on Wednesday August 28, 1963. Lesser known titles of the protest march include “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and “The Great March on Washington.” On that fateful day a massive caravan of vehicles converged upon Washington to transport the large number of protesters, including 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners, and countless automobiles. Public transportation such as planes, trains, and buses were filled to capacity. The route of the march was short, beginning at the Washington Monument and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. “Women leaders were asked to march down Independence Avenue, while the male leaders marched on Pennsylvania Avenue with the media.”

Why were they marching?
The protest was held to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. African Americans in the south were being plagued by the yoke of racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws, which essentially stemmed from the legacy of slavery in the south. Centuries of racial discrimination made the social, economic and political life of blacks in the south miserable, thus the March on Washington was designed to bring awareness and combat discrimination and call for more civil and economic rights of African Americans. According to an article from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University The stated goals of the protest included “a comprehensive civil rights bill” that would do away with segregated public accommodations; “protection of the right to vote”; mechanisms for seeking redress of violations of constitutional rights; “desegregation of all public schools in 1963”; a massive federal works program “to train and place unemployed workers”; and “a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment.” The full demands can be heard here by march organizer Bayard Rustin.

I Have a Dream
The March culminated with Dr. King’s famous I Have a Dream Speech at the Lincoln Memorial in DC. As a slight parenthetical, It would behoove one to listen to and take note of the entire speech, as Dr. King says much more than what is popularly portrayed in his speech. Most clips from television just show the climax of the sermon during the I Have a Dream discourse, but the speech is much more rich and moving than folks may realize. One of the overall goals and premises of the speech was to speak out against racism and call for an ultimate end to it in the United States and beyond.

Coalition Building
Although Dr. King became the face of the protest it was actually organized by Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Randolph and Rustin built coalitions of “civil rights, labor, and religious organizations that came together under the banner of jobs and freedom.” King was not the only one that spoke at the event, there were a number of folks from various interest groups with common goals who were on the official program. Other speakers included: NAACP president Roy Wilkins, American Jewish Congress president Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; National Urban League president Whitney Young, UAW president Walter Reuther, SNCC leader John Lewis and march organizers Randolph and Rustin. In edition, well-known singers Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Marian Anderson, Odetta and Joan Baez performed during the protest.

A very Large Protest that Got Results
The gathering was one of the largest human rights rallies in United States history, attracting an estimated 250,000 people of a variety of racial backgrounds, although nearly 80% of the protesters were African Americans. The march was very effective as it was credited for helping to bring about two major pieces of Civil Rights legislation, namely the Civil Right Act of 1964 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The Struggle Continues
In the 21st century we are still fighting the same battles that Dr. King fought for. To be fair, much progress has been made and many new laws have been passed since Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders have passed from that era. However, in many ways the United States of America still tends to be the land of unequal opportunities.

Classrooms for Justice
The classroom can be a space where youth can consider the ideas that Dr. King and the protesters of the March fought for. Inequality as it relates to employment and educational opportunities, housing and food insecurities and a host of other inequalities tend to plague the poor and people of color across the nation. Teachers can build unit plans that allow students to analyze primary source documents, sociological data and other resources that shed light on these issues. With that awareness students can become advocates for the forgotten and disenfranchised in society, much like King was during his time. As is our custom, below are some resources and articles that can assist teachers in educating their students surrounding this topic. 

Singing and Performing at the March on Washington
Joan Baez performs “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington
Bob Dylan – Only A Pawn In Their Game (March On Washington 1963)
Odetta Sings at the March on Washington in 1963
Mahalia Jackson- March on Washington
Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial
I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King Jr. Full Speech Best Audio

Speakers at the March
Bayard Rustin speaking at the March on Washington
Phillip Randolph Reading Pledge of the March on Washington
Rabbi Joachim Prinz March on Washington

March on Washington Lesson Plans
Albert Shanker Institute March on Washington Lesson Plans
Teaching About the 1963 March on Washington
PBS News Hour Lesson Plan
The Goals of the March on Washington – Lesson Plan

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Joan Baez- Civil Rights
Stanford University Article March on Washington



  1. I didn’t know how many people were there during The March on Washington and the article offers great details. Something I also wasn’t aware of is that the males and females walked different ways. I also didn’t realize that the protest was organized by someone other than Martin Luther King Jr. This begs the question, why weren’t the women marching with the men and the media?

  2. This article is a great teaching tool and just a good refresher for some of the details on MLK. His “I have a dream” speech is one of my favorite speeches of all time.

  3. I think this article is great and needs to be used to teach students. This article not only shows the unity that Dr. King and so many other leaders believed in and strived to achieve.

  4. This is a great refresher for everyone. I had learned this previously but as someone who will be teaching it to students next year its great to relearn some of the details that I may not remember. I think as a teacher Its so important to teach students about Dr.King. He had such an impact on American history and the lives on African Americans to this day. Teaching students about history from cultures other than their own is vital to creating awareness and respect for others. Its also a great way fro students who aren’t used to hearing/ learning about their culture in school to feel represented and like they matter.

  5. I think this article is great for adults to revisit and even for teachers because as an adult I did not know all of the details from the March on Washington was a Civil Rights and I think it would be great to teach students about when Martin Luther King, Jr Day approaches. I also like this article because as a reader it reminds me of why they were marching, but also to show how even today there is still a lot that we need to do in terms of equality among all. I also liked how at the end of this article there is an area that talks about lesson plan ideas for teachers, this is definitely something I will refer back to when I am an educator.

  6. I am greatly inspired by how this article ends, about how, “with that awareness students can become advocates for the forgotten and disenfranchised in society, much like King was during his time.” This surely represents the peak of teacher success, when we enable young people to recognize the need for change and action for the betterment of others. The resources at the bottom are excellent stepping points for strong lessons that place racial equality and remembrance at the focus point. With the examples of police brutality and clear racism that have happened in the recent times, this has never felt so relevant to me. I think this speaks to the priviledge and separation from issues that “whiteness” can lead to. But beyond that, with the successful election of Rev. Dr. Warnock, there are clear lines of parallel between the hope and excitement caused by the election results and the March on Washington.
    Sometimes, it’s hard for me think about MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech occurring at the height of a peaceful civil protest. Even though it was decades before my time, because of being able to see and hear recordings and videos of that speech, it has always felt like a celebration to me. But the 250,000 attendees were protesting, and I think that “celebration vibe” I feel stems from years and years of effort beginning to bear fruit.
    I never knew that the men and women were asked to march separate routes. I am assuming that the men wanted to be the ones to face a potentially prejudiced media. This seems like something that isn’t taught in American schools when we learn about the March on Washington. This is certainly connected to people during the BLM protests taking measures to ensure their fellow protestors’ safety. I think this should be a clear indicator of which side of history a protest is on, when the organizers do everything they can to keep people safe and peaceful. Very unlike last week’s attack upon the capitol building.
    Thanks to all for the opportunities to learn more during this Martin Luther King Jr. celebratory weekend about him and others who made a difference.

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