Leaders & Controversies

Transcript: Source2

Extracts from a British embassy report on the March on Washington, dated 30 August 1963
(Catalogue ref: FO 371/168485)

Source 2a

My Lord,
            The much-heralded "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" took place in excellent weather on the 28th of August. Some 200,000 demonstrators, the great majority from outside Washington, converged in trains, buses and planes, in the early morning, and assembled round the Washington monument which faces the White House and stands half way between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Promptly at the appointed time the crowd moved in a massive stream down Constitution and Independence Avenues towards the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd, which was primarily Negro but with an unexpectedly high proportion of whites, proceeded cheerfully, waving countless banners and singing and clapping rhythmically to the "Freedom" songs which have become the familiar accompaniment to Negro demonstrations throughout the country. At the Lincoln Memorial the main proceedings took place. After two hours of speeches, relieved by songs from well known Negro and white artists, and after the crowd had shouted its pledge to carry on the struggle, everyone dispersed quickly and quietly.

2. The demonstration was remarkable not only for its size but for the extraordinary restraint of the crowd. For weeks the Negro leaders had been urging their followers to avoid

Source 2b

excessive militancy and above all violence. The day's programme had been carefully designed to minimise the chances of trouble. In the event most of the demonstrators put on their best clothes and were almost self-consciously on their Sunday best behaviour. Water and soft drinks were virtually the only form of liquid refreshment to be seen. The crowd was cheerful, though with an undercurrent of seriousness which set bounds to their gaiety. So far not a single incident of disorderly behaviour had been reported. All in all the highest hopes of the Negro leaders in the discipline of their people were fulfilled. The Southern Congressmen and the distressingly high proportion of native Washingtonians who had been predicting and in many cases hoping for a race riot were disappointed. Through a television coverage unequalled since President Kennedy's Inauguration the world saw for itself the best side of the Civil Rights movement.


Source 2c

3. The demonstration was first mooted in the aftermath of the Birmingham riots in May as a means of putting pressure on Congress to pass the President's new Civil Rights legislation. It was a revival of an idea of Mr. A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping-car Porters, who had threatened a similar march in 1941 to secure job opportunity for Negroes in defence plants. In recognition of this Mr. Randolph was accorded a place of honour in the demonstration, and presided with resonant dignity for much of it as Master of Ceremonies. Perhaps partly as a result of his role the demonstration singled out "jobs" as well as "freedom" in its objectives. Mr. Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto-workers, was also given a prominent part and made an excellent speech. The U.A.W. was strongly represented in the crowd and paid the loud-speaker bill. (By contrast, the AFL/CTO had refused to endorse the march.) The demand of the marchers for "freedom" underscored the dominant position attained in the Negro movement by the practitioners of non-violent direct action whose chief slogan is "Freedom Now". The place of honour as the last main speaker was given to Dr. Martin Luther King. The marchers obviously set out to show Washington what a Southern direct-action demonstration looks and sounds like, though the absence of police dogs and fire hoses gave this the character of a performance rather than the real thing. All the Negro speakers made it plain that in the present stage of the struggle direct action was now the universally accepted cutting edge of the Negro movement.

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