Here's The Real Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s Greatest Moment

“I have a dream … ” — we all know the words.

But Martin Luther King Jr.’s crowning moment may never have happened without one of the largest protests ever — the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

After growing backlash against blacks in the South, King and five others planned the event, a peaceful demonstration to end segregation and promote equal rights.

King crafted his famous speech specifically for the 250,000 people that would gather in the nation’s capital that day.

In 1963, Birmingham, Ala. had become the epicentre of racism. A KKK clansmen bombed a Baptist church, killing four young girls in September. Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, died in the fire.

As a result, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his focus to the area. He organised many anti-segregation demonstrations despite a state-wide ban. Police arrested King and his fellow civil rights proponent, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, on April 12, 1963 during a demonstration.

The situation in the South continued to worsen. Below, firefighters in Birmingham turn a high-powered hose on peaceful demonstrators. Bayard Rustin, the march's head organiser, said that credit for mobilizing the march could go to 'Bull Conor (Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham), his police dogs, and his fire hoses.'

The assassination of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, the first director of the Mississippi NAACP, also created outrage and sorrow in the black community. Below, Myrlie Louise Evers bends down to kiss her decreased husband at a public viewing at a funeral home in Mississippi.

Days later, black demonstrators descended on Washington. Demonstrators marched from the White House to the Department of Justice with few incidents, defying speculations of violence and other negative press. Here, Attorney General Robert Kennedy addresses the crowd with a bullhorn.

Demonstrations around the country began happening with greater fervency and frequency. Here, Alison Turaj continued marching through Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore, despite a cut on her forehead. During a peaceful demonstration in July, a mob of angry whites threw rocks at her and others. Yet police arrested more than 100 black and white integrationists that day.

Six of the most prominent black leaders gathered in New York City on July 2 to plan a civil rights march on Washington.

From left: John Lewis, chairman Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee; Whitney Young national director, Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, president of the Negro American Labour Council; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president Southern Christian Leadership Conference; James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality director; and Roy Wilkins, executive secretary, National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Bayard Rustin acted as head organiser for the march. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously at this year's 50th anniversary commemoration. Rustin reportedly came up with the idea of selling buttons to raise funds for the march.

Source: NPR

Rustin set up the march's headquarters in a walk-up apartment in Harlem.

Celebrities also played a crucial role in financing the March on Washington. A. Philip Randolph, right, the director of the March on Washington, shakes hands with actor Paul Newman at a benefit performance at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. Stars performed a four-hour, post-midnight show that night which raised $US30,000 only four days before the march began.

But the March on Washington owes the most to labour unions. Randolph, shown below in front of the Lincoln Memorial, lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one the first and largest black labour unions, which provided initial money as well as much of the door-to-door organising power for the march.

Source: USA Today

On the day of the march, people of all ages and races from across the country made their way to the nation's capital. By one account, buses flooded the capital at a rate of 100 per hour.

Source: Marin News

Some traveled very far in unconventional ways. Ledger Smith, 27, began his journey from Chicago to Washington on August 17. The professional roller skater, known by his stage name 'Rollerman,' skated the 685 miles in 10 days to join civil rights demonstrators at the nation's capital on Aug. 28.

Others simply walked, determined to join the march. Members of Congress for Racial Equality, one of the march's sponsors, walked 250 miles to Washington, D.C. They left Brooklyn on Aug. 17.

As protestors began to arrive at the National Mall, thousands of military police -- security for 'expected' violence at the event -- greeted them.

For safety reasons, they denied entry to some like George Rockwell, especially counter-protestors who might cause trouble. Rockwell (shown below smoking a corn cob pipe) tried to gain access to the parade but police denied him a permit. As leader of the Anti-Negro Anti-Jew American Nazi Party, he and his followers showed up without their usual uniforms.

More than 100,000 people were expected to attend the march. Here, workmen install extra telephone poles to uphold general communication at the event.

On the day of the march, participants totaled an estimated 250,000, one of the largest protests in U.S. history. The march's organiser's had only budgeted $US7,000 for signs.

After marching through downtown D.C., participants gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King's famous 'I Have A Dream' Speech.

Click here for audio of the original.


The night before the march, one of King's advisers told him, 'Don't use the lines about 'I have a dream.' It's trite, it's cliche. You've used it too many times already.'

Source: The Guardian

But King didn't listen. His words that day became the most important political speech of the 20th century, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin.

After he spoke, thousands of still-peaceful, sign-carriers traveled to the Washington Monument to continue their fight for equal rights.

Despite King's accomplishments, progress has been slow.

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