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Tuesday, August 29, 2023

August 29, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: 1957 Prelude

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On how a 1957 march directly foreshadowed 1963, and how it differed.

As part of my 2021 MLK Day series I shared a paragraph from my most recent (then forthcoming) book, Of Thee I Sing (2021), where I analyzed King’s 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” as an example of critical and active patriotism. That speech was delivered at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom march on Washington, so check out that post (the first hyperlink above) if you would and then come on back here for more on that 1957 event.

Welcome back! King delivering a potent headlining speech at both the 1957 and 1963 marches wasn’t a coincidence, and it’s not simply a reflection on his incredible oratorical gifts (although yes, that too). The 1957 march built on the planned 1941 one I discussed yesterday (logically enough, as it too was planned by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, although this time the amazing activist and leader Ella Baker played a central role as well), but it even more directly foreshadowed 1963: a gathering of tens of thousands of protesters (the largest civil rights demonstration in American history to that point) at the Lincoln Memorial, featuring both speeches and musical performances, culminating in that powerhouse closing speech from King. Of course the Civil Rights Movement, like any social movement, repeated similar tactics in multiple moments and settings; and as I mentioned yesterday, Randolph and company quickly realized the power of marches on Washington (whether just planned as in 1941 or executed), so it stands to reason they’d keep using that strategy. But it is nonetheless striking how parallel the 1957 and 1963 marches were.

Parallel isn’t identical, however, and I’d highlight two subtle but significant distinctions between the two marches. One was the central role of a politician, Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a minister turned representative from Harlem) in both planning the 1957 march and delivering another speech. Like any politician, Powell had to keep politics in mind, and so for example he asked the march’s planners to do what they could to keep from embarrassing President Eisenhower (an understandable but still fraught request). Perhaps in response to that request (although a genuine element of the event to be sure), the 1957 march was framed not as a social protest but as a religious occasion, a “Prayer Pilgrimage” as the official name indicated. Compared to the 1963 march, for example, the musical performances in 1957 leaned more into spirituals and less into contemporary folk music (although 1963 certainly featured spirituals as well, as I’ll discuss later in the week). Both Powell and King were ministers, so this core religious thread was hardly a surprise—but it did reflect a somewhat distinct tone from the 1963 march, and helps us consider another layer to such events and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Next March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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