The spring and summer of 1963 proved to be one of the most important times of the Civil Rights movement. On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated; white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith would not be found guilty of his murder for nearly thirty years. In April, 1963, protest against discrimination in the downtown department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, culminated in protests on April 4. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest during these demonstrations and the media coverage of police violence against the demonstrators catapulted both the movement and King, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), into the national spotlight to an even greater degree than before. The boycotts and mass marches eventually provided sufficient pressure that white leaders promised to desegregate the stores’ facilities, hire African Americans to work in the stores, and establish a biracial committee for ongoing talks concerning racial problems.
These gains were achieved at a price, however: King was jailed briefly; police brutality occurred against protesters; and arrested protesters filled Birmingham’s jails. Nevertheless, the filled jails negatively affected the capacity of police to arrest and hold demonstrators, which was exactly what King and other civil rights leaders had hoped; news coverage of police brutality outraged many citizens; and, while jailed, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a document that delineated the need for and goals of the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. The acclaim that met this document foreshadowed the reaction to his speech at the March on Washington two months later.
The March on Washington produced a bigger turnout than expected, as an estimated 250,000 people arrived to participate in what was then the largest gathering for an event in the history of the nation’s capital.
Along with notable speeches by Randolph and Lewis, the audience was treated to performances by folk luminaries Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and gospel favorite Mahalia Jackson.
Toward the end, with television cameras beaming his image to a national audience, King began his speech slowly but soon showed his gift for weaving recognizable references to the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and other universal themes into his oratory.
Pointing out how the country’s founders had signed a “promissory note” that offered great freedom and opportunity, he noted that “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
At times warning of the potential for revolt, King nevertheless maintained a positive, uplifting tone, imploring the audience to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”