The gathering on Washington’s National Mall 50 years ago today was about more than the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. When a quarter-million Americans came together, they weren’t concerned about impressing folks back home who were watching on TV. They were there to make history.
Already, 1963 had been a brutal year of race-based tension and conflict. In May, Mr. King led a boycott to desegregate department stores in Birmingham, Ala. Police responded with German shepherds and fire hoses.
In June, President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to stop Gov. George Wallace from blocking the entry of two black students to the University of Alabama. The president called for civil-rights legislation the same night that Medgar Evers, an NAACP leader, was gunned down by a sniper in Jackson, Miss.
By the time the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was planned for August, no one knew what to expect. The eventual size of the crowd was unprecedented, but people of all colors, genders, and faiths marched with dignity.
Instead of riots, there were processions and hymns. Instead of anger, there was resolve. The Americans who maintained their sense of purpose that day weren’t victims of irrational optimism. They were witnesses to the inevitability of change, believers that the protections afforded by the Constitution were everyone’s birthright.
The now-fabled march was not a great moment in U.S. history because Mahalia Jackson sang in a way that moved many to tears. Nor was it remarkable because Mr. King made one of the most memorable American speeches since the Gettysburg Address.
The march was a great moment because so many Americans, with no guarantee their voices would be heard, gathered to change the nation’s moral and political trajectory.
Mr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the first thing that comes to mind about that moment, but it was only one highlight in a day that changed American society. The men and women who gathered before the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago altered the course of history. Their hard-won legacy must not be taken for granted.