Looking Behind the March on Washington: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and Labor in Primary Sources

Would your students be willing to march for something they believed in? On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people came to the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This march has become famous for the “I Have a Dream” speech presented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and for the theme of ensuring the economic and civil rights of African Americans.

Primary sources from the Library of Congress can help students learn more about the March, including the fact that it was also a labor protest  for a higher minimum wage, job training for the unemployed, and broadening the Fair Labor Standards act.

A. Philip Randolph to NAACP Secretary Walter White, March 18, 1941

Students may not know that there were discussions about a march on Washington in 1941. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph wrote to  NAACP director Walter White suggesting a mass protest against discrimination in defense industries and the armed forces. To attempt to stop the march, Franklin D. Roosevelt scheduled a meeting with White, Randolph, and several other government officials. After that meeting, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries receiving government contracts. In addition, the Fair Employment Practices Committee was set up to monitor hiring practices.

Ask students to read Randolph’s letter. Do they think that a march in 1941 would have helped ensure fair hiring for African Americans? Would there have been a march in 1963 if Randolph’s march had taken place in 1941?

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – Lincoln Memorial Program, August 28, 1963

Students can also review the list of speakers for the 1963 March. Encourage them to find biographical information on each of the speakers. Note when Martin Luther King, Jr. was scheduled to speak. Would his speech have received such acclaim if he had been scheduled to speak at a different time during the march? Encourage students to speculate on why the issues relating to civil rights for African Americans became a larger focus than the rights of all workers.

Celebrate this milestone in American history by using the Library’s primary source set on the NAACP, the presentation From Slavery to Civil Rights: A Timeline of African American History and images from the U.S. News and World Report image collection. Students can also use the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to respond to these primary sources.

Will you and your students study the March on Washington? What techniques will you use? Share your answers in our comments section.

2 Comments

  1. thatguyinthelibrary
    August 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Does the library of congress still refuse to lend things to middle schools and high schools via ILL? I’m not referring to the high-profile things that can be digitized and make a statement, like some of the items referred to here. I mean regular books, owned by LC and sometimes not widely held by other institutions.

    If you won’t lend things out to students (through their school libraries), why not?

  2. Danna Bell-Russel
    August 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Students who are sixteen years of age and older can use the Library of Congress. Please be aware that some reading rooms still limit access to those eighteen years of age and older. All users must obtain a reader registration card before visiting any reading room. Information on Interlibrary Loan Service at the Library of Congress can be found here. For interlibrary loan materials must be requested by a library not by a particular person and the Library of Congress does have the right to deny an interlibrary loan request.

    If you have any additional questions you may wish to contact the Collections, Access and Loan Management Division.

    Thanks for your question.

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