The 1957 March on Washington: A Pilgrimage for Rights and the Ballot

On May 15, 1957, the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education, there was a march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The goal of the event, known as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, was to encourage the federal government to continue working to implement Brown v. Board. Speakers included A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Mahalia Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The All American News, newsreels for African American audiences, produced a thirty minute documentary on the event. Narrated by Muriel Rahn, a noted African American actor and singer, the film included samples of speeches given during the event and comments from notable attendees such as Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and Harry Belafonte. Also included were side stories on the bravery of children who faced the response to integration (12:02-14:00), the importance of non-violence to the civil rights movement (21:09-21:54), and commentary on the connection between the civil rights and labor movements(5:10-5:28 and 8:57-10:00). The film was accompanied by a variety of hymns and spirituals and images from the march, many showing African and white Americans talking, singing, and praying together.

Share the film, or selections from it, with students and encourage them to consider the following questions:

  • Why do you think the organizers chose the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision for the event? If the focus of the event was education and integration, why did so many of the speeches and the vignettes from the film focus on the passage of civil rights legislation and ensuring that African Americans had the right to vote?
  • Much of the documentary focuses on the religious aspect of the event, including using hymns and spirituals as background music. Why do you think this event was called a “prayer pilgrimage” and not a march?
  • The organizers held the prayer pilgrimage on a Friday. What do you think the organizers were trying to accomplish by holding the event on a workday and focusing on religious aspects?
  • At 24:11 Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown delivering a portion of his “Give Us the Ballot” speech. Compare this speech to the much better known “I Have a Dream” speech. Why do you think the “I Have a Dream” speech is remembered as one of the greatest speeches ever given and “Give Us the Ballot” is not as widely remembered? Compare how the two speeches were delivered; how might this help us understand why one speech is more well known than the other?
  • Watch the speech by the president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson (22:52-23:13). He declares, “We must never forget this day.” Why do you think this event is so little remembered?

To see more films from the All American News, visit the National Screening Room.

Where Do You Go If You’ve Reached a Historical “Dead End”?

Where can you look if you think you’ve run out of information about a person or place? How can we encourage students to be persistent researching in the face of a “dead end”? And how do we equip students with the knowledge of databases and archives, so that when they run into a historical dead end, they know where to keep looking?