Creating “A Day Like No Other”: New Exhibition for March on Washington

The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.

Some 250,000 people, both white and black, crowded onto the National Mall on August 28, 1963, to demand civil rights for African Americans. It was the largest demonstration the city had seen—The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The concluding speech, “I Have a Dream,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., continues to inspire hope of a better future.

The marchers filled the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos.

The marchers stretched from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31151

Our new exhibition, A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, features 40 black-and-white prints from news photographers, independent socially conscious photojournalists, and a March participant. A video screen displays an additional 60 images. In all, more than 15 photographers and news agencies are represented. Two political cartoons by Bill Mauldin drive home the painfulness of the long struggle for racial equality and how many people anticipated violence for this March.

Many organizations are commemorating this historic turning point in the civil rights campaign. To describe why we feel so strongly about contributing an exhibit from the Library of Congress, I talked over the show’s goals with photography curators Maricia Battle and Verna Curtis and exhibition director Kim Curry.

First of all, we have fantastic pictures of the March in many different collections. Selecting even 100 photos was a challenge. It’s also a pleasure to shine a light on the mid-20th century, because we are best known for our 19th century resources for slavery and the Civil War.

As importantly, each photograph is a “still” moment that allows time for reflection. By immersing you in image after image, we want to transport you back to the experience of being at the March. The photographs can also raise questions. You might ask, “What did the March accomplish?” or “What does the March mean today?” Whichever photographs draw your attention, look closely and let the rich visual details talk to you.

Curators hate to be asked about their favorite pictures in a show, so, of course, I inquired. When you study photographs over many months, they become like children. There really isn’t one favorite, but there are images that bring special delight or epitomize the show’s spirit.

Maricia Battle highlighted a photo by Roosevelt Carter (1926-1981). Young NAACP members are clapping and singing in an image filled with the joyful emotion of the day. Carter was a professional photographer who traveled overnight from Columbus, Ohio, with a church group to participate in the demands for civil rights.

Students in NAACP jackets at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. © The Estate of Roosevelt Carter

Students in NAACP jackets at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. © The Estate of Roosevelt Carter. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19598

Verna Curtis was also drawn to a photograph of unity; a hopeful turning point in an unfinished story. She described an image by Leonard Freed (1929-2006) where young people have linked arms in front of the Lincoln Memorial to sing. Their careful attire is a striking contrast to today’s style of dress and places the photo in time. Freed practiced socially conscious photojournalism and often documented African American life, publishing several books on the subject.

Participants link arms at the March on Washington. © Leonard Freed, Magnum Photos

Participants link arms at the March on Washington. © Leonard Freed, Magnum Photos. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35503

Because the March was heavily photographed, the event offers a special opportunity to study a historic time from different viewpoints. The fast-action commercial news photographers had to capture key moments rapidly for immediate publication—staff photographers working for AP, UPI, and New York World Telegram & Sun; Stanley Tretick for Look; and Warren K. Leffler, Thomas J. O’Halloran, and Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report. The documentary photographers had time to reflect on which of their many images best portrayed the spirit and purpose of the March with poetic close-up shots and carefully printed iconic views—Bob Adelman, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, David Johnson, Danny Lyon, and Flip Schulke. March participant Roosevelt Carter moved all around the National Mall, with a lively snapshot quality in what caught his eye.

This exhibition and its programming were made possible by the generous support of the J. J. Medveckis Foundation, the Friends of the Law Library of Congress, the Law Library Various Donors Gift Fund, Roberta I. Shaffer, and an anonymous donor to the Prints and Photographs Division.

Learn more:

  • View the exhibition online: A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington(Update 8/29/30: online exhibition content expected in the second week of September)
  • Visit the show in person, through March 1, 2014, at the Graphic Arts Gallery in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.
  • Attend gallery talks at the exhibition. 
  • Look at March on Washington photos digitized from all collections in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
  • Read the blog post about March on Washington photographs digitized from the U.S. News & World Report Collection.
  • Explore the Library’s resources for the Civil Rights Era overall
  • Read books about the March on Washington:
    • Adelman, Bob, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I Have a Dream”: A 50th Year Testament to the March that Changed America. FT Press, 2013.
    • Euchner, Charles C. Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
    • Freed, Leonard. This Is the Day: The March on Washington. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.
    • Jones, William P. The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.
    • Kelley, Kitty. Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

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