The March: Scholars Have Their Say

We asked academics to put the 1963 event and this year's commemorations in context.

The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University 

I was there at the March on Washington in 1963 (as well as at the lesser-known march for school integration in 1958). With Martin Luther King’s birthday now a national holiday and the 1963 march now lauded across the political spectrum, it is hard to remember how controversial the march was when it took place. The Kennedy administration was not enthusiastic; nor was the mainstream press. The thought of hundreds of thousands of blacks, along with white allies, descending on the nation’s capital scared the wits out of them.

What the march accomplished was to reveal to a nationwide audience the mass support behind the civil rights revolution. It gave the brilliant oratory of King and others a national audience they did not yet fully enjoy. And while most of the participants were black, it offered a concrete realization of the ideal of interracialism.

And while I don’t expect any tangible results from the upcoming march, anything that puts the issues of racial equality and economic justice on the national agenda is worthy of support.

Peniel E. Joseph, Professor of History, Tufts University

The March on Washington helped to fundamentally transform American democracy. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech helped to jump-start a national conversation about race and democracy that would continue throughout the decade. Ultimately, the march turned the struggle for racial equality and economic justice into a national priority and helped to spur not only civil rights legislation but also a grander vision of national renewal that became an integral part of what President Lyndon Johnson called the Great Society.

Stephen Tuck, University Lecturer in American History, University of Oxford

While hundreds of thousands marched with King in Washington, many hundreds also marched in solidarity in Accra, Ghana; Tel Aviv, Israel; and London, and thousands more watched King’s speech live via the newly launched Telstar Satellite. In London, demonstrators marched on the American Embassy carrying a banner that read, “Your fight is our fight.” In doing so, they were not just showing support for their American counterparts — they also sought to harness the power and the popularity of the American civil rights movement to strengthen their campaign against discrimination in Britain. 

The global reach of the American race story remains today, perhaps even more so in our increasingly interconnected world. And with global reach comes responsibility. Seeking to realize the dream in America matters for us all.

Donald Yacovone, Director of Research and Program Development, Harvard University; Associate, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University 

The 1963 March on Washington, which has become an iconic event in the history of the civil rights movement, focused national attention on the injustices of segregation and legitimized the civil rights movement in the eyes of many Americans who previously had been swayed by the segregationists’ appeal to anti-communist ideology. In retrospect, [the famous march] gave the civil rights movement a new legitimacy and elevated Martin Luther King Jr. to heroic status. But it also served to simplify the civil rights message, dulling its sharp challenges to American society. We are dealing with the results of that process to this very day, which the murder of Trayvon Martin so painfully displayed.