Firsthand Accounts Of The 1963 March On Washington That Still Inspire Us

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people gathered in the United States capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The significance of this march moved the nation and inspired change. 

Buses, trains, and planes transported thousands of people to Washington, DC, while millions more watched the march take place on television. Hollywood actors like Marlon Brando, famous writers like James Baldwin, award-winning recording artists like Harry Belafonte, and the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, were all in attendance. As a quarter-million Americans gathered in front of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, DC, the world watched.

These firsthand accounts of the March on Washington tell the inspiring story of this momentous day in history.


  • 'It Ignited Something In Me That Has Lasted Forever.'
    Photo: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'It Ignited Something In Me That Has Lasted Forever.'

    Robert Boyd recalls having some initial hesitations about joining the March on Washington in 1963. At the time, he had a great job as a New York City fireman and his wife worked at a bank. He didn't know much about the civil rights movement. He shared his reservations with his wife.

    I was hesitant and said to my wife, "I don’t want to get involved in any of this civil rights stuff." She said, "Civil rights stuff? We have this nice apartment, you have your job, I have my job at the bank because of the civil rights stuff."

    That was enough to change his mind. He attended the march and volunteered as a security official. All the police officers and firefighters who volunteered at the march wore white hats.

    Boyd knew so little about the civil rights movement that he didn't recognize Dr. Martin Luther King:

    We were surrounded by dignitaries, James Baldwin, a lot of movie stars. I was standing right behind Martin, but I was getting autographs from all the movie stars and writers because I recognized them and not him.

  • 'The March Was Not A Black Thing, And It Was Not A White Thing. It Was A People Thing'

    Althea Lee was inspired to join the civil rights movement after Emmett Till's murder in Mississippi in 1955. In August 1963, she was on the bus to the monumental March on Washington. 

    Her friends and family were terrified for her safety, but Lee didn't care:

    The march was not a black thing and it was not a white thing, it was a people thing.  I think people were willing to die, if it came to that, for this special day.

  • '50 Years Later, I Still Experience Racial Hatred'
    Photo: Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress / No known restrictions

    '50 Years Later, I Still Experience Racial Hatred'

    Odehyah Gough-Israel was 11 years old in 1963, and attended the march with her 13-year-old sister. Gough-Israel was acutely aware of racial injustice even then:

    Even at 11 years old in 1963, I was keen enough to understand that my mother was treated differently in certain department stores.

    She said that participating in the March on Washington was an incredible experience and "it was a day that we really felt empowered."

    From that day forward, she was dedicated to being a confident and outspoken woman, which was an incredibly courageous thing to be as a Black woman in 1963 and still is today. Odehyah Gough-Israel and many others wish things were different moving forward from the march. Although the 1963 March on Washington changed the USA and the world, there is still a lot of progress to be made:

    There was a time when people didn’t want to step on toes of Black people and offend them even more than their ancestors already had. But now people don’t care. They’ll say whatever, they’ll do whatever. To me, I feel a lot more of the hatred and the distrust.

  • 'We Use Celebrity To The Advantage Of Everything. Why Not To The Advantage Of Those Who Need To Be Liberated'
    Photo: Thomas J. O'Halloran / Library of Congress / No Known Restrictions

    'We Use Celebrity To The Advantage Of Everything. Why Not To The Advantage Of Those Who Need To Be Liberated'

    Harry Belafonte was a world-renowned, Grammy award-winning singer in the 1960s. Belafonte dedicated his energy to bringing celebrities to the March on Washington to bring more attention to the event:

    For myself personally - beyond raising money, beyond speaking at events that helped to raise money to bring citizens to the Mall - my task, my larger task, was to organize a cultural contingency to come to the March on Washington.

    He even went as far as visiting studio executives to ask for celebrities to take a day off from recording music and filming movies to attend the march. Belafonte's efforts worked. Some of the greatest celebrities of the day attended the march, including Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlton Heston, and Burt Lancaster.

    The presence of big-name celebrities eased a lot of people's minds when it came to the threat of violence at the march. Belefonte was in direct contact with John F. Kennedy and his family, who were afraid of their safety at the march, but still desired strongly to attend:

    One of the things that I said in my conversations with the Kennedys in discussing why they should be more yielding in their support of our demonstration was the fact that there would be such a presence of highly profiled artists - that alone would put anxiety to rest. People would be looking at the occasion in a far more festive way.

  • 'I Was 7 Years Old'

    Lisa Magidow was a young girl in 1963, and went to the March on Washington with her father. He raised her up on his shoulders so she could see the crowd around her. She remembers mostly just being tired and hot. She recalls that even though there were so many people there, it was completely silent when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began the speech that would change the world. 

    On the ride home, Magidow witnessed something that would stay with her forever:

    I remember that I looked down at my dad and he was crying. I realized years later why.

  • 'You Could See Nothing But This Landscape Of People'
    Photo: Marion S. Trikosko / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Restrictions

    'You Could See Nothing But This Landscape Of People'

    Lawrence Cumberbatch was 16 years old when he participated in the March on Washington in 1963. He visited the Brooklyn CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) offices, which is where he first heard about the organizational efforts behind the march. 

    He spent the entire summer picketing for employment equality, which was CORE's main intention behind attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They had organized with CORE members from Washington, DC, to make the biggest impact that day and to have homes to stay in after the march. 

    Cumberbatch was blown away by the turnout of the march:

    The only way I could explain the experience is that once we gathered from the different homes where we’d spent the night, we walked through the throngs of people, we were escorted up to the podium, and that’s when it struck. You could see nothing but this landscape of people, nothing but people. It was really incredible. We were giddy. I can remember it.