Exploring the Ideas and Logistics Behind the March on Washington Using a Planning Document

Flyer describing the final plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

In the January-February 2023 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the planning of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was held on August 28, 1963.

Today the March is remembered for many things: its staggering size, its inspirational setting at the Lincoln Memorial, and the galvanizing oratory that rang out from the memorial’s steps, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream Speech.” This article, however, focuses on the logistical efforts required to organize such an enormous event.

Coordination of the March was spearheaded by the longtime civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had decades of experience organizing marches and campaigns. The March on Washington required planning on an unprecedented scale, and Rustin and other organizers used a variety of tools to communicate and coordinate with hundreds of thousands of attendees.

One of those tools was a leaflet titled Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, which is available in the online collections of the Library of Congress. This eleven-page document includes information intended for March participants, from political goals and talking points to advice on packing a lunch, and provides students with many opportunities to explore the thinking of the behind-the-scenes organizers of the March.

Students can begin their exploration of the Final Plans leaflet by examining its early pages and asking questions about its content as well as its general appearance. Ask: Does its appearance help a reader understand its purpose? Encourage students to compare the document to programs for events that they have attended or organized and consider what differences in approach and mood they can identify. Ask: How is this document different from a program intended to serve primarily as a souvenir?

Focus students’ attention on the leaflet’s title page and table of contents and lead a class discussion about the overall scope and structure of the document.  Ask students to consider what they reveal about the priorities of the organizers. Ask: Do the topics fall into any larger categories? What topics did the organizers want participants to see first? Are any topics missing from the document?

Lead students deeper into the document, to the “Who Is Sponsoring the March?” section.  Ask each student to select one individual or organization and investigate their role in the March on Washington and the civil rights movement. Challenge students to find out how their organization became a sponsor of the March, and how their sponsorship may have shaped the event.

The “Why We March” and “What We Demand” sections of the leaflet present core messages and root causes of the March briefly and succinctly. Encourage students to search writings and speeches from civil rights leaders to find places in which the messages and themes in “Why We March” appear, and to discuss how those messages are stated differently in those writings and speeches. Invite students to select one of the demands listed in “What We Demand” and trace its fate after the March. Which of these demands were successfully met? How was that success achieved?

The fact that a march that helped change a nation is contained within a few short pages is both a marvel and an inspiration. Urge students to imagine how such a momentous event could be planned today, and what communication tools would be needed to keep such a vast and powerful group of participants informed, organized, and moved to take action.

Please share what your students discover in the comments!