Being the self-proclaimed LC weather gal, I felt compelled, and it was thoughtfully suggested to me, to write about the weather on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington. I love researching historical weather; the temperature, precipitation, humidity, cloud coverage, wind, etc., all aid in setting the stage or painting the picture of a moment in time.
In 1963 certain parts of the country were going through one of the worst droughts since the 1930s (See Weather and Circulation of July, August, and September 1963 by James F. Connor. Monthly Weather Review, Oct-Dec. 1963: 737-748). The drought affected areas east of the Rockies such as Jackson, Mississippi, which had its driest 17-month period on record beginning in May 1962, and Cleveland, Ohio had one of the driest 9 months (Jan.- Sept.) since it began keeping records in 1870 . Generally speaking, precipitation was below normal in the eastern half of the U.S, while it was above normal in the Rocky Mountain States.
The summer of 1963 brought above normal average temperatures to the mid-continent area and below normal temperatures east of the Mississippi River. As one would expect, there were hot and humid days in the South, but there was an unusual cool spell that hit the Ohio Valley and the Northeast. The U.S. Climatological Data National Summary (v. 14, August 1963) states “Over the Northeast, August 1963 was the coldest August in many years and one of the coldest on record. Over the Southeast, August 1963 was the driest August in many years and one of the driest on record.”
Participants in the March on Washington traveled from every part of this country and took various modes of transportation: airplane, automobile, bus, and train. I sought out the Local Climatological data using the National Climatic Data Center website to answer the question: What were the weather conditions like for travelers coming by car or bus from cities east of the Mississippi River?
South/ Southeast: It was unusually cool in Atlanta,Georgia and Greensboro,North Carolina with temperatures in the 70s. In contrast, it was hot in Birmingham,Alabama and Memphis,Tennessee with temperatures that reached the 90s, and Little Rock,Arkansas was also hot with temperatures reaching 100 degrees! The sky conditions varied from scattered and broken clouds to passing thunderstorms, although most of the big cities did not report any precipitation.
Midwest: On the days before the March,Chicago was also unusually cool for the summer with temperatures averaging between 63-69 degrees. St. Louis, Missouri was a bit warmer with average temperatures in the mid to high 70s, while Cleveland,Ohio’s temperatures averaged in the low 60s with highs in the mid 70s.
Northeast: New York City was experiencing pleasant weather with below average temperatures in the high 60s and the maximum temperature never going above 80. Philadelphia’s temperatures averaged in the low 70s.
About a week before the March, Washington D.C. was slammed with heavy rains and lightning. The area received around 6 inches of rain over the two day period of August 19th- 20th, which caused all sorts of damage to the area. Fortunately, the following week provided the participants with good weather
All participants were asked to arrive at the Washington Monument by 10 a.m. for the March. At noon participants began to march down Independence Avenue and Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. At 2 p.m. the main program of speakers began at the Lincoln Memorial.
After consulting the Local Climatlogical data for Washington D.C’s National Airport, which is a stone’s throw away from the National Mall (where the Lincoln Memorial stands), it was a beautiful day for a march. It was not a typical hot and humid summer day- the temperature was mild and dew point was low. It averaged 73 degrees with the hottest part of the day being from 1- 4 p.m. when it reached 80 degrees. Throughout the early morning the sky was filled with scattered and broken clouds, however between 9.am- 11 a.m. the sky was clear. For the remainder of the day, the sky conditions ranged from scattered clouds to thinly overcast, and by evening the sky was mostly overcast. Winds were out of the south ranging from 9-13 m.p.h.
When we look at the photographs and read accounts of the event, we might get a different picture of the weather for the day- that of a day that was hot and humid. Folks dipped their feet into the reflecting pool and fanned themselves to keep cool. After being on the Mall for the Let Freedom Ring event held on August 28 of this year (2013), I can attest it probably felt hotter than it was because of the overwhelming crowds of people and standing on your feet for hours on end. Also, one’s choice of clothing would affect how you reacted to the weather. If you were in a suit or otherwise dressed up, as many were in 1963, you might have heated up quicker than if you were dressed in cotton shorts and t-shirt.
Although the weather observations tell a different story, to fully understand what the weather felt like, we need to think beyond the records and take note of these other factors (i.e crowds, activity, and wardrobe). I have no doubt that it seemed hotter on the Mall during the 1963 March, than the records tell us.
My fellow LC bloggers and curators have written about various aspects of the March on Washington. I recommend checking out their posts to learn more about this historical event:
Picture This! Prints and Photographs: March on Washington, 1963: Many New Images Digitized
In the Muse: Performing Arts: “We’ll walk hand in hand someday”- Music and the March on Washington
Teaching with the Library of Congress Resources: Looking Behind the March on Washington: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and Labor in Primary Sources
In addition, the Library opened a photo exhibit on August 28th , “A Day Like No Other, Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington,” featuring photos of the 1963 march by photographers including Leonard Freed, ‘Flip’ Schulke, Danny Lyon and Roosevelt Carter in the Graphic Arts Gallery in the Jefferson Building. For more details see the LC blog post March on Washington: Riches at the Library of Congress and Creating “A Day Like No Other: New Exhibition for March on Washington.
You can also view the opening of the exhibit with guest speaker Representative John Lewis.