Everyone knows that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington 50 years ago. You may even know that between 200,000 and 300,000 people participated in the historic event. But did you know that JFK tried to stop the rally? Or that its unofficial leader was a gay, socialist, Quaker? Here are a few more facts that may surprise you.
The march on Washington was the brain child of A. Philip Randolph, the president of both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council, and vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Randolph first threatened to organize 100,000 black people to march on Washington to protest the segregation in the U.S. military and employment discrimination in 1941.
Unbelievably, the largest march prior to the Civil Rights movement's protest was by 40,000 members of the Klu Klux Klan, who marched for racism in 1925.
The group that organized the march was later referred to as the "Big Six" by the press. They included A. Phillip Randolph, Jim Farmer (Congress on Racial Equality, CORE), Dr. Martin Luther King (Southern Christian Leadership Council, SCLC), the present-day congressman from Georgia, John Lewis (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP), and Whitney Young (Urban League).
President Kennedy tried to talk the "Big Six" out of having the rally. After he failed, he told an aid, "Well, if we can't stop it, we'll run the damn thing." JFK demanded that the event be held on a week day to try to limit the number of participants. He also required that participants arrive in the morning and leave before dark; that all placards and signs be officially approved; and that none be critical of the Kennedy administration.
There was a huge fight over who would be the official leader of the march. All of the "Big Six" knew that Bayard Rustin was the most qualified and King, Randolph, and Farmer advocated for his leadership. Young and Wilkins, however, feared that Rustin was a liability who would be used to discredit the march for three major reasons: he was a Quaker who'd been jailed during World War II as a conscientious objector, which meant he could be labeled a "draft dodger;" Rustin was a socialist who could make the march politically vulnerable in the post-McCarthy era; a gay man, he'd been arrested on a "morals" charge. Leaders feared Bayard would taint the movement in a country that was even more homophobic then it is now. As a compromise, Randolph was the official leader and Rustin did the leg work.
The "Big Six" were extremely divided. The NAACP and Urban League saw the march as a chance to support JFK's Civil Rights bill. King, Randolph, and Rustin were as concerned with economic justice as they were with the Civil Rights bill. CORE and SNCC, the more radical arms of the group, wanted to use the march to protest against and demand more from the Kennedy administration.
The AFL-CIO supported Civil Rights legislation but opposed any civil disobedience, refused to support the march. Individual unions, however, including the Sleeping Car Porters, UAW, UE, ILGWU, ILWU, TWU, and District-65, sent and paid for buses which brought tens of thousands of people.
John Lewis has his speech censored because it was deemed too divisive and critical of Kennedy by some of the organizers of the march. When the event started, Lewis still hadn't agreed to some of the changes. Finally, Randolph intervened: "I have waited 22 years for this. I've waited all my life for this opportunity. Please don't ruin it. John, we've come this far together. Let us stay together." Lewis capitulated. He maintained some criticism of the administration saying, "In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality." But he refrained from calling the bill "too little and too late," or saying "we will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did." He also cut the provocative "which side is the federal government on?" question.
Martin Luther King Jr. was supposed to speak for seven minutes but ended up going for an inspired 19. The most famous part of his speech, about his dream, was not even in his draft.
King's speech helped trigger an FBI spying operation against King. William Sullivan, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, wrote in a post-speech memo entitled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question": that King was “head and shoulders over all other negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the negro, and national security.”