Sixty years ago this month, over 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the endpoint of a massive protest march organized to draw attention to the civil rights movement. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom may be most famous for serving as the backdrop of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, best known by the phrase: “I Have a Dream.”
The Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) recently published a set of documents detailing the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s (UPCUSA) involvement in this historic march. The documents, available in Pearl Digital Collections, join a number of previously digitized photographs, recordings and other historical records related to the civil rights movement — and, more specifically, the participation of Presbyterians in the fight for racial equality in America.
Newly digitized items include correspondence about the March’s organization. On July 24, 1963, John H. Grosvenor, Moderator of the Presbytery of Washington City, addressed a letter to leaders of the presbytery’s member churches, encouraging them to tell their congregants about the upcoming March on Washington.
PHS has also digitized a letter written by Rev. Thomas Kilgore (a representative of the March on Washington) to the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA. In the letter, Kilgore urgently asks for financial support for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. You can read the letter here.
The protest organizers chose the Lincoln Memorial as their backdrop for a reason — 1963 marked the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. King opened his speech with that explanation: “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 … But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free …And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.”
Along with King, the crowd heard speeches from civil rights, labor, civic and religious leaders — including Blake, the Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA and spokesperson for the National Council of Churches. You can read about other church leaders present at the march in this blog post from August 2013, “One Hot Summer Day in Washington, D.C.”
You can read first-hand accounts of Presbyterians who participated in the March on Washington, such as the Rev. Gayraud Wilmore, in "Reminiscences from the March on Washington, 1963." These stories first appeared in the civil rights special issue of “The Journal of Presbyterian History.”
PHS’s online exhibit, “Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement” features interpretive text, images, and other archival items that share the various ways the church was involved with the civil rights movement. From the creation of the Commission on Religion and Race to the Delta Ministry of Mississippi, learn how the Presbyterian Church dealt with racism and segregation in the 1960s.
The "Civil Rights, Protests, and Social Reformers" digital collection in Pearl highlights Presbyterian and ecumenical involvement in the March on Washington, as well as a number of other civil rights movements, protests and social justice issues.
- “One Hot Summer Day in Washington, D.C.” (blog post from August 12, 2013)
- Topics of Note: Presbyterians and Civil Rights (list of resources)
- Online exhibit: Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement
- Full transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech
This article first appeared on the PHS blog: https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/2023/08/60-years-63-newly-digitized-march-washington-records