Hollingsworth: Reflections on the March on Washington


A graduate of Delaware State College (now University), Dr. Reba R. Hollingsworth, who, as young as 14, experienced mandated segregated schools that forced her to leave her family to live on her own and attend DuPont Colored Schools in Dover, had a long and extensive career as an educator. In addition, she has served her community as a counselor and advocate for civil rights, and has been recognized and honored both in Delaware and abroad for extensive advocacy work. She remains active in state and local affairs.

Editor’s note: Dr. Hollingsworth’s commentary is based on her presentation Saturday at Dover Christian Church during a 60th-anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington in 1963.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, the Rev. John Moore, for allowing me this opportunity to share in this historic event with you.

The March on Washington, which was held in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, was planned by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and to put an end to racism in the United States. Even though Negroes were legally freed from slavery in 1863 at the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865; were granted citizenship with the signing of the 14th Amendment on July 9, 1868; and Black men were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment on Feb. 3, 1870, many restrictions were imposed on Black people under the system of legal discrimination known as Jim Crow laws well into the 1960s.

Throughout the 20th century, civil rights organizers began to develop ideas for a march on Washington to seek jobs and justice for Black folks. The 1963 march was part of the rapidly growing Civil Rights Movement, which involved demonstrations and nonviolent action across the country.

In June 1963, leaders from several different organizations formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership and met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss their plans to organize a large, peaceful crowd to march on Washington. They believed that the various sit-ins and protests throughout the South needed the backing of a large national demonstration. Randolph was designated national director and Rustin his deputy director. President Kennedy endorsed the march at a press conference July 17, 1963.

Two hundred activists and organizers publicized the march and recruited the marchers, coordinated the buses and trains, provided marshals, and set up and administrated all the logistic details of a mass march in the nation’s capital. Aug. 28, 1963, was designated “Freedom Day,” and workers were given the day off.

The goals for the march, read by Bayard Rustin, were:

  1. Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation.
  2. Immediate elimination of school segregation (the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education).
  3. A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed.
  4. A federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring.
  5. A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide (equivalent to $19 in 2022).
  6. Withholding federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination.
  7. Enforcement of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from states that disenfranchised citizens.
  8. A Fair Labor Standards Act broadened to include employment areas then excluded.
  9. Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights of citizens are violated.

Thousands traveled by road, rail and air to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963. More than 2,000 chartered buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airlines and uncounted cars converged on Washington. All regularly scheduled buses, trains and planes were also filled to capacity. Many were afraid but came anyway.

My husband, Berlin, our daughter, Vivian, and I left Dover early in the morning of Aug. 28 and drove to Washington. We wanted to arrive before the crowd gathered because we wanted to be as close as possible to the stage of the Lincoln Memorial.

As we stood at the fence and watched as the crowds of people gathered, it reminded us of the throngs of people who gathered at the Sermon on the Mount to hear Jesus teach his disciples and pray and heal the sick, as described in Luke 6:12-18 and Matthew 5. The marchers who had come to Washington by car, by bus, by train and by plane exceeded the population of Dover that year by almost 10 times. About 75%-80% of the marchers were Black.

A sound system was built so that the 200,000-300,000 people on the National Mall could hear the speakers and the musicians from the Washington Monument, where the march began, to the Lincoln Memorial, where the program was held.

There was a hush among the marchers, as representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations addressed the crowd from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. Camilla Williams led the national anthem because Marian Anderson did not arrive in time. Following the invocation by Washington’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, the opening remarks were given by A. Philip Randolph, march director, and Dr. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches.

A tribute to the “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was led by Bayard Rustin, followed by brief remarks by Daisy Bates, who spoke instead of Myrlie Evers, who had missed her flight. Following that, the speakers were Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, labor leader Walter Reuther and Congress of Racial Equality chairman Floyd McKissick, substituting for James Farmer. The Eva Jessye Choir sang, and Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America, offered the prayer. He was followed by National Urban League director Whitney Young, National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice director Mathew Ahmann and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. After Mahalia Jackson performed “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” and “How I Got Over,” American Jewish Congress president Joachim Prinz spoke.

At 1:30 p.m., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the last speaker for the March on Washington program, which called for jobs and freedom and an end to racism. Near the end of his speech, Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” and Dr. King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme, “I Have a Dream.”

The program closed with a benediction by Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays. Everybody was mesmerized.

The March on Washington is credited with propelling the United States government into action on civil rights, creating a political momentum for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The “I Have A Dream” speech was translated into 36 languages and is considered one of history’s greatest speeches and an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement. The words of all the March on Washington speakers resonate six decades later, and we serve as witnesses to the bravery and dedication of its organizers. Thank you for your attention.

References: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Wikipedia, 2023; Susan Altman, “Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage,” Second Edition, 2000; Michael E. Ruane, “MLK’s ‘dream’ speech goes on display at Smithsonian for 60th anniversary,” The Washington Post, Aug. 9, 2023.

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