Teaching the Movement, Beyond Four Famous Words

The March on Washington was more than a backdrop to “I Have a Dream.”  

Fifty years ago on Aug. 28, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom culminated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.  

American students know these four famous words. However, too few ever learn about the people, events and ideas that created the context for his speech. For many students, the March on Washington is summed up by a few iconic images—a sea of mostly black bodies peacefully holding signs, gathered between the white marble bookends of Washington and Lincoln. But the March represents much more than a backdrop to Dr. King’s speech. Effective civil rights education requires that we move beyond focusing on a few moments or messianic figures. 

In a 2011 report, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States, Teaching Tolerance found an overwhelming need to improve state history standards related to the movement. We identified nine areas essential to civil rights education: events, leaders, groups, history, obstacles, tactics, connection to other movements, connection to current events and connection to civic participation. These nine areas provide students a more nuanced understanding of this complex history. Below are examples of how they could be used to look at the March on Washington.

Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States has been updated since its 2011 publication. Find the 2014 report, along with a collection of resources for effectively teaching about civil rights history, here.

1. Events. Students should be able to identity key events in the civil rights movement and place them in the correct chronology.

The 1963 March on Washington was—at the time—the largest demonstration ever held on the national mall (250,000 people). It is widely credited with building the public support and political pressure necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

2. Leaders. Students should learn that the civil rights movement was a movement composed of many individuals and not the initiative of any single person or small group of people. 

The March on Washington was led by the “Big Six”: Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. Openly gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin directed and coordinated the March. 

3. Groups. Students should be able to identify major groups involved in the civil rights movement.  

The sponsoring committee for the March included representation from civil rights organizations as well as religious and labor groups. These groups worked together and marched in solidarity:

  •  Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
  •  Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
  •  Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
  •  Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
  •  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  •  National Urban League 
  •  National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice
  •  Commission on Race Relations of the National Council of Churches
  •  American Jewish Committee
  •  United Automobile Workers (UAW) & The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

4. History. Students should be able to trace the roots of the civil rights movement from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  

1963 was the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that followed emancipation, brutal inequity persisted during the Jim Crow era.      

5. Obstacles. Students should identify obstacles to the civil rights movement’s success. 

Resistance to the March came from different sources. White supremacists opposed the goals of the March. The Kennedy administration originally discouraged it, concerned about political backlash. Even some black leaders criticized the March for being overly staged and scripted; Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington.” 

6. Tactics. Students should identify and compare tactics used at different times during the struggle for civil rights.  

The March on Washington was an integrated, nonviolent demonstration. Unlike other forms of protest used during the civil rights movement, the March did not use civil disobedience or direct action; organizers decided that solidarity, rather than confrontation, would be the goal. 

7. Connection to other movements. Coverage of the civil rights movement includes connections to other social movements.  

The nation’s capital had seen other large public protests for political causes like labor (Coxey’s Army, 1894) and women’s suffrage (1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade). But after the success of the 1963 March on Washington, demonstrating for change in the nation’s capital has become an important part of the social movements that followed, including the environmental, anti-war, women’s rights and LGBT rights movements.  

8. Connection to current events. The civil rights movement is linked to current events and concerns.  

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a time to assess our nation’s progress toward the goals of the civil rights movement. While major legislative victories have been won, many of the demands for economic justice made by the marchers have not been met.   

9. Connection to civic participation. The civil rights movement is incorporated into civics instruction so that students are encouraged to apply the lessons of the movement when forming their own ideas about effective citizenship.  

The March on Washington is a beautiful illustration of our First Amendment freedoms of speech, petition and assembly in action. 

How will you teach the movement? 

Studying the March through multiple lenses brings the passion and pain of the marchers to life for students and offers a rich opportunity to explore why and how this event still has meaning today. Dr. King’s words will live on, but the march for justice and equity must also continue. Equipping students with a rigorous civil rights education gives our future marchers the best chance to see their dreams fulfilled.

Chiariello is an educational consultant who specializes in culturally responsive standards-based education.