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UPI Archives
Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963
(Published Thursday, Aug. 29, 1963, in the Milwaukee Sentinel)

More than 200,000 rally for civil rights

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to the assembled crowd during the march on Washington August 28, 1963. Speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King rallied the nation's civil rights movements with his impassioned "I have a Dream" speech. (cc/sp/files UPI)

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 1963 (UPI) -- An intensely emotional but orderly throng of more than 200,000 demonstrators-their leaders shouting "the time is now"-Wednesday staged America's biggest civil rights rally beneath the brooding figure of Abraham Lincoln.

The demonstrators, converging on the capital from across the country-from tiny hamlets and big cities-opened the mammoth "jobs and freedom" rally with a festive picnic like air and concluded it in an impassioned mood of almost religious fervor.

Massed on the Lincoln memorial grounds after marching from the Washington monument, they heard their leaders lay down 10 civil rights demands ranging from equal access to jobs to total school desegregation now.

And the theme was "Now." Speaker after speaker declared that the Negro had waited too long for civil rights-and then came the Rev. Martin Luther King, jr., perhaps the most eloquent of the white and Negro civil rights leaders.

"The time is now," he shouted, ticking off Negro demands. Again and again he declared: "The time is now."

The huge crowd that stretched for nearly a mile along Washington's historic mall shortly before had been put in a revival mood by singer Mahalia Jackson with two hand clapping songs: "I've Been Duped and I've Been Scorned" and "I'm Going to My Lord When I Get Home."

Leaders of the march, who conferred late in the day with President Kennedy, were jubilant over the huge turnout and over what Washington police Chief Robert V. Murray called the "very orderly" assemblage.

"Great, simply great," exclaimed Dr. King.

Said Theodore M. Wells, leader of an integrated group from Belleville, N.J.: "It was beautiful. I didn't see a cross look on anyone's face. I didn't hear a profane word."

There was agreement from several members of congress, who when they appeared before the throng were greeted with shouts of "pass the (civil rights) bill, pass the bill." Senator Keating (Rep., N.Y.) called the march "an amazing demonstration."

The marchers streamed into the capital in the early morning hours on trains, more than 1,500 buses, nine chartered planes, and by car and by foot.

They came from hundreds of cities and hamlets in masses that represented nearly every condition of humanity from elderly white clergymen to young descendants of slaves-convinced, they said, that this was the high point of the long rights battle.

Even before the close of the ceremonies they started heeding the advice of their leaders and, weary from the strains of the day, headed toward Washington's Union station and its bus terminals for the trip home.

As the rally broke up, police reported that 1,355 had required treatment at first aid stations, none with serious injuries. Many fell over tent poles and down steps. Uncounted were the hundreds who fainted in the closely packed crowd and were revived on the spot.

Three arrests were reported, none involving demonstrators.

These isolated incidents were completely overshadowed by the sheer size and enthusiasm of the march from the Washington monument to the Lincoln memorial, and the emotional demonstration before the Lincoln shrine.

After raising his estimates throughout the day as more and more marchers appeared, Chief Murray finally settled on a figure of "over 200,000." The mass of humanity appeared countless.

Even so, veteran observers of civil rights demonstrations agreed that the Washington march had to go down as perhaps the best organized and disciplined demonstration in the history of the movement.

So disciplined was the crowd that when one of the number fell victim to fainting he or she was simply lifted above the heads of the throng and passed hand by hand over people's heads back to first aid station. All this without interrupting a single speech.

The emotional peak of the day came with Dr. King's speech at the close of the demonstration introduced as "the moral leader of our nation today," he took note that just "five score years ago" Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dr. King called the Lincoln document "a beacon light of hope" and then looked back to the constitution and declaration of independence with their promises of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all Americans.

Terming those pledges a "promissory note," he said the demonstrators had descended on Washington to "cash" the check.

"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned," he declared to the shouts of the multitude before him. "Instead of honoring this sacred obligation America has given the Negro people a bad check-a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'

But he declared that the Negro refuses "to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt" and is determined to "cash a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

This also was the theme of a key slogan: "We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis."

The symbolic "march for jobs and freedom" actually covered only eight-tenths of a mile between the Washington monument gathering grounds and the Lincoln memorial-where some of the crowd sat along the famed reflecting pool and dangled their feet in the water.

Along the way some chanted freedom songs but most strode in silence.

"Like a church picnic," said Deputy Police Chief Howard Covell as some of his men found so little to do they opened box lunches and began munching on sandwiches while demonstrators walked by. There was equal order once the crowd massed at the memorial.

During the early morning hours nearly all traffic within Washington moved toward the center of the city where the Washington monument spears the sky. Here they gathered...first in a festive mood, then in more solemn manner.

At 11:15 a.m., after entertainment by such personalities as actor Marlon Brando and singer Harry Belafonte, the march toward Abraham Lincoln's shrine got under way spontaneously when a group surrounding a drum and bugle corps suddenly headed for the memorial grounds.

"They're individualists," explained Negro leader Roy Wilkins. "They were ready to march and they marched."

Down tree lined Constitution and Independence avenues the marchers tramped, occasionally breaking into the rhythmic chant of "freedom, freedom, freedom" and sometimes singing freedom songs. One favorite was the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The line of march down Constitution av. Carried them past the gleaming white Pan American building, the National Academy of Sciences on one side and dingy "temporary" World War II navy buildings on the other.

Finally, nearly three hours later, they had massed on the memorial grounds.

The formal ceremonies got under way with the national anthem. Then came speaker after speaker laying before the assemblage the Negro's demand for "freedom and jobs."

Dr. King said they had a "very fruitful" session with Senate Democratic Leader Mansfield of Montana.

One of the nation's top religious leaders, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, executive head of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., appealed to Americans to abide by the spirit of God.

"We have achieved neither a nonsegregated church nor a nonsegregated society," he said. "And this is partly because the churches of America have failed to put their own houses in order.

"We come in the fear of God that moved Thomas Jefferson to say, 'Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.'"

Copyright 2007 by United Press International.