Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at an event held in Washington, D.C. 60 years ago this week. While Dr. King’s contribution became legendary, many other notable figures — including civil rights activists, religious leaders, and even famous singers – also participated in this historic event.
The event was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Check out an official program from the event via the National Archives.) Even before Dr. King took the podium, the demonstration was already viewed as a noteworthy occasion because it was a rare joint collaboration between leaders of the most prominent civil rights groups of the time. As a result of their efforts, more than 250,000 people came together at the Lincoln Memorial that day in support of civil rights and employment opportunities for the Black community.
Here are some of the other noteworthy leaders who were there:
Randolph — who headed the first Black labor union — spearheaded the event and is listed as its official director. He also was the driving force in a movement to end segregation in the U.S. military.
Congressman John Lewis
Lewis — who died in 2020 at the age of 80 — had a pedigree in the civil rights realm that few (aside from Dr. King himself) could rival. One of the original 13 Freedom Riders, he founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and suffered countless beatings and assaults while participating in sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. The images of a vicious assault he endured at the hands of state troopers in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 (Bloody Sunday) sparked an outcry that helped lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. He would go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 30 years, earning the nickname “the Conscience of Congress.”
A journalist and activist, Wilkins served as the NAACP’s executive secretary (the organization’s top spot, a role whose title was later changed to executive director) for nearly 20 years. He led initiatives aimed at allowing Blacks to obtain loans and participated in many of the civil rights marches in the South during the mid-1960s. He worked closely with a succession of presidents to propel several major pieces of civil rights legislation into law and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
Young was a social worker and civil rights trailblazer who served as the executive director of the National Urban League. Politically savvy and comfortable working with business leaders, Young became a valuable adviser to Lyndon Johnson and is credited with playing a critical role in shaping Johnson’s War on Poverty. He received the Medal of Freedom from Johnson in 1969.
Another member of the Freedom Riders, Farmer was also the co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which is credited with helping to pioneer the use of peaceful demonstrations and high-profile protests – which the organization dubbed “direct nonviolent action” to support the civil rights movement. He would serve as a teacher, political adviser, and a board member for numerous organizations. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998.
Ahmann served as the executive director of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice. He was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent and effective representatives in the civil rights movement.
Parks has been called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” and is perhaps most famous for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated public bus to a white man in 1955. According to the Library of Congress, Parks and other women civil rights leaders protested after discovering they were going to be relegated to a separate, less visible part of the March on Washington, prompting event leaders to make a last-minute change to the program, adding a “Tribute to Women” segment.
Baez sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” at the event. (See video here.)
Dylan performed several songs — including “Blowin’ in the Wind” — before Dr. King’s speech.
Odetta — an American folk singer whose full name was Odetta Holmes — performed “Oh, Freedom” at the event. (Watch the video here.)
Opera singer Anderson was another musical performer who participated in the event, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” (See video here.)
The husband-and-wife pair of American actors and civil rights activists served as emcees for the event.