The August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom gathered more than a quarter of a million people to draw attention to and protest segregation, lack of voting rights, unemployment, institutionalized racism, and other civil inequities that African-Americans still faced 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a peaceful protest, without incident, held in front of the Lincoln Memorial and is most notably known for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
The result of the march was the Kennedy administration passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Although there were quite a few incidents that led up to the event, there were some interesting behind-the-scenes facts that helped make the overall program more successful.
The crowd was much larger than expected. Also, despite the pivotal work and activities of the women in the civil rights movement like Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, Myrlie Evers and others, the program initially excluded African-American women.
Dr. King almost did not even use the poignant imagery of his dream for a future America that was race blind and offered equal justice because he had used the term a few times the previous year.
The speech was a wonderful example of consistency and persuasion as it alluded to the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, a famous quote from William Shakespeare, and even Biblical verses.
All the speakers were not just African-American, but also included a rabbi and white American labor leader. Some parts of American politics seek to whitewash or ignore America’s troubled past so one group of American children don’t feel guilty, but this is at the expense of not acknowledging the egregious experiences of another group of American children.
The takeaways from the March on Washington include resiliency, consistency, patience, strategy and unity.
The horrific events in the lives of African-Americans leading up to and even following the March on Washington are too extensive to note in this short article. The key was that in the face of these perpetual atrocities, the Civil Rights revolutionaries kept pushing forward and did not allow resistance to stop their plan.
As Muslims around the world experience Islamophobia from within and from others, our collective strength is important. Resiliency is the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties.
As Muslims we have the life example and experiences of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, that demonstrated how to resist and keep going in the face of oppression, discrimination, and even outright war.
The March on Washington was a hundred years in the making. African-Americans had been in a state of protest and resistance to institutionalized oppression for generations. The words to protest oppression had been said numerous times – consistently. Muslims cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice or stand up for our religious values, over and over again.
In The Prophet's tradition, we are reminded, “The most beloved of deeds to Allah are those that are most consistent, even if it is small” (Bukhari).
Change takes time. Sabr is a virtue we understand as Muslims. Even after the March on Washington in 1963, two weeks later, four African-American girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, followed by the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi the following year.
Fifty years after the March, in 2013, African-Americans were appalled at the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of unarmed high school teenager Trayvon Martin and the violation of his civil right to move freely in society.
In addition, the Supreme Court that year ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.
Even 60 years after the March on Washington, African-Americans were under attack with a targeted shooting of African-American students in Florida in August 2023, and the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, along with 18 co-conspirators being indicted by the state of Georgia for organizing an illegal scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election by suppressing votes in Fulton County, Georgia. Fulton County has the largest population of African-American voters.
These facts indicate that change is a process that is slow but achievable and as Muslims, we know that patience does not mean inaction, it means to rely on Allah.
“Why should we not put our trust in Allah, when He has truly guided us to the very best of ways? Indeed, we will patiently endure whatever harm you may cause us. And in Allah let the faithful put their trust” (Quran 14:12).
The organizers for the March on Washington understood the importance of planning, vision, and inclusion. Dr. King’s speech included American concepts that resonated with the audience he was trying to persuade. The organizers understood that African-American women were already on the front line of civil rights inequities and therefore had a voice and a place in the resistance.
They also understood the importance of alliance with others who were sympathetic to the cause. Again, there are similarities here with the reality of the Muslim community experience. In addition, we have the example in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as he made alliances with tribes and leaders during the Prophetic age.
There is no doubt that the size of the crowd on the March on Washington was a significant feature of its impact. The organizers planned for about 100,000 people, but over 260,000 individuals attended, demonstrating their grassroots efforts and ability to instill nationwide urgency for the topic and purpose. The marchers literally locked arms and walked in one direction and with one purpose. This is a modern-day example of how powerful unified thought can be. Muslims can’t just make speeches against oppression; we must be willing to actively work against it. There is strength in numbers, there is power in unity.
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided”