Understanding Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington

Commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy with #DreamDay- https://www.nbcnews.com/usnews/commemorate-martin-luther-king-jr-s-legacy-dreamday-6C10985807

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

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 enjoyed reading this article. MLK March on Washington is an important historical event to me. Without it, I can honestly say I would not be alive. This march set the tone on racism and inequality in america. In todays times, we need to be reminded on this historical event. I believe that we get caught up in future to think about the past and what has happened. As ones says history repeats itself. To think that with the riots and protest are a version of the march on washington makes me happy because hopefully change will follow.

  2. Although I have heard and read about the March on Washington protest, I found this article very interesting and full of information I was unaware of, including that the protest was not organized by Dr. King but instead was organized by Randolph and Rustin. This article taught me that I still have a lot to learn about the difficulties and hardship that African Americans have had to endure to this day.

    I am glad I took the time to listen to the whole speech “I have a dream”; it amazed me that even though The United States of America has come very far when it comes to respecting and accepting African Americans as equals, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Many of the issues addressed by Dr. King in his speech are the same issues that we see African Americans continue to fight for nowadays. I agree with Dr. Childs when he states that in “many ways The United States of America still tends to be the land of unequal opportunities.” We just need to do a quick search to figure out that job opportunities and justice is not provided equally for African Americans compared to the white population.

    We still hear of African Americans being left out of opportunities for no other reason than their skin color; we still hear of African Americans being suspects of delinquency, just because they fit a pattern that had been established from previous generations due to prejudices. So if there is something that I learned from this article it is that I still have plenty to learn, not only about African American history but also about how I can be and do better, not only for my benefit or those close to me, but for the good of this country in general.

  3. In light of recent events, I believe that understanding Martin Luther King, Jr. and looking back at his accomplishments will help aid the situation that is occurring right now. It’s sad that after so many years that we are still dealing with situation that he was desperately trying to combat. This article is an excellent resource to better understand what we can do as a nation and follow in MLK’s footsteps.

  4. Martin Luther King Jr. is such a well-known historical leader, many people remember him from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, that came from this event. Him and countless others joined together on August 28th, 1963 so that they could protest the racial discrimination that was happening in the United States. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, discrimination was still very big as well as segregation. I enjoyed how you shed a light on the reason why they were marching, and how after the March on Washington and countless other forms of awareness, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were brought to light. I also liked that you mentioned how even though the Jim Crow laws were gone, and the African Americans were given the right to vote, discrimination still goes on in the United States today. Sometimes people don’t seem to think about how discrimination is still going on today, until something happens to shed a light on the matter and people begin to realize the amount of discrimination still in our world.

  5. On August 28, 1963, some 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, a young man named Martin Luther King climbed the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to describe his vision of America. More than 200,000 people-black and white-came to listen. They came by plane, by car, by bus, by train, and by foot. They came to Washington to demand equal rights for black people. And the dream that they heard on the steps of the Monument became the dream of a generation.

  6. I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, I had a dream, while I was in Elementary School. All I remember learning was that he gave a speech about freedom and equal rights for African Americans. I do not remember learning about the March on Washington. After reading this article and March: Book one by Andrew Aydin and John Lewis, I’m realizing how important and huge the March on Washington was. These people were fighting for their freedom knowing that they could get put in prison or put their families in danger. They did it because they were fighting for something they believed in. I also did not realize that 80% were African American, while 20% were other races. These people were marching for equal rights for everyone.

  7. I have learned about the March on Washington through out my high school years. I never realized how large the crowd was. I found it very interesting on how many different ways of transportation where used for this event. I think that really helped me visual how many people were their. I also found it very heart warming that even though this event is 80% African Americans supporting the rally. The other 20% came from all different backgrounds and diversities. This is heart warming because during a such negative and harsh diverse time, this event still brought together many different diversity’s together to fight for their rights! I think some times that is a hidden gem in such a major event.

  8. I really liked learning more about Dr. King through this article. I remember learning about the speech in school but I don’t remember learning about Dr. King in depth. I feel that I have learned more details about Dr. King and the march through this article. I think this would be a good lesson for students to learn, and not just on or around Martin Luther King Jr. day. Teachers can use the lesson plans and units to engage students to help them truly understand what Dr. King and the other protestors wanted.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this article, I learned about a lot of details that I did not know previously. I didn’t realize until I read this article that Martin Luther King Jr. was not the one that actually organized the march and I didn’t realize how many people gave speeches. I think a lot of the time people see his speech but they don’t look at the others and I realize now what a mistake that is. The other speeches are just as powerful and moving and it is important to listen to them as well to get a full understanding of what things were like at this time and the feelings that people were experiencing. I really think this would be a great lesson for students because there are so many primary sources for them to use and different things they can focus on through those sources. I like the sources that were included in this article and I think it would be a great overall resource for teachers to use to create lesson and unit plans for their classrooms. I also think it is a fantastic resource for students, or anyone that wants more in-depth information about this period in time and the march in particular.

  10. This is a really good important lesson that all students in my opinion need to be taught in detail. You are right that this is a good lesson for primary sources because there are many to choose from since this was not that long ago.

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