The above still from James Blue’s film The March captures the spirit and intent of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March on Washington, an interracial collaboration, was a significant factor in the passage of the two most important civil rights legislative acts of the 20th century: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The film, however, was not universally praised. Critics from all over the political spectrum were displeased by how the film depicted racism and interracial collaboration. In an America where some states prohibited interracial marriage until 1967, images from The March like the one above caused controversy that reached all the way to the Oval Office. To understand the film and how it was received, it is important to understand the long history of racism in America.
There are six key dates that serve as touchstones for the film.
1619: Enslaved Africans brought to America
The first enslaved Africans and the first white democratic assembly in America appeared in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. White traders made 54,000 trips to enslave almost 60 million Africans and transport them to America.
Three hundred and fifty years ago the white man came to America, and 350 years ago the Negro came to America. The one came as master; the other as slave. (James Blue, The March)
1776: Creation of the US Constitution
The democratic assembly founded in 1619 was codified in a constitution that offered a platform for both protest and an eventual end to enslavement.
The Constitution of the United States guarantees every American the right to protest peaceably. Two hundred thousand Americans, then, were going to use this right. (James Blue, The March)
1863: Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation
With a proclamation freeing most enslaved people and a rousing charge in his Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln made great strides towards the constitutional abolition of enslavement. The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 would finally bring an end to enslavement, freeing the enslaved people not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation and explicitly forbidding the practice.
One hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln declared, as president of the United States, that all slaves would henceforward be set free. (James Blue, The March)
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream”)
1870 to August 28, 1963: The rule of Jim Crow and legal American Apartheid
Abraham Lincoln’s actions ended enslavement, but they did not prevent the emergence of Jim Crow laws that legalized the segregation of the races.
By the end of August 1963, in some places of the United States a Negro could not go to school where he chose, eat where he wished, build his home where it pleased him, or find jobs for which he was qualified. He had been insulted, beaten, jailed, drenched with water, chased by dogs. (James Blue, The March)
But 100 years [after Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation] the Negro still is not free.
There are those who are asking the devotees of Civil Rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, “For whites only.”
I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream”)
As a result of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress were pressured to pass major civil rights legislation in subsequent years.
June 2, 1964: Civil Rights Act signed into law, ending legal segregation
The Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
July 3, 1965: Voting Rights Act signed into law, guaranteeing voting rights for African Americans.
The Voting Rights Act prohibited legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution.