August 28, 1963: "The March on Washington"
The first special train arrived at Union Station in Washington D.C. before 7 a.m. and carried 535 marchers from Pittsburgh. Next came a train from Cincinnati. People were coming by bus, plane, automobile, bicycle and foot. The whole affair was giving the nation’s capital a case of the jitters. Alcohol sales were banned. Hospitals and jails made room for an onslaught of arrivals. More than 5,000 police were on hand. Many expected riots and looting.
Instead, the “March for Jobs and Freedom” had the peaceful atmosphere of a church picnic. Known now as the “March on Washington,” the event drew more than 200,000 people to the capital and became a defining moment in the nation’s Civil Rights Movement.
The march itself was fairly short — nine blocks, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where formal ceremonies were held. In the front ranks were the Pittsburgh delegation, singing marching songs and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Men removed their coats in the summer heat. The chant of “freedom, freedom” filled the air. At the Lincoln Memorial, speakers and musicians awaited the start of the official program. Not everyone was pleased with President John F. Kennedy’s pending Civil Rights legislation. Two Kennedy aides stood by, ready to pull the plug on the sound system should any of the speakers get out of hand.
Of course, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the day’s highlight. It was carried live on television and is today considered one of the most important and moving speeches in American history.
Before the march, the Pennsylvania delegation met with Rep. William S. Moorhead, a Pittsburgh Democrat. Over coffee and breakfast rolls, Moorhead confided that passage of Civil Rights legislation then before Congress was by no means certain — blunt assessment that “mystified and dismayed” Moorhead’s fellow Pittsburghers, according to the Press.
“Do you think our coming here has helped the bill?” one marcher asked.
Probably, Moorhead replied. The march, in fact, is now credited with providing the political momentum that ensured passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
— Steve Mellon