King is perhaps most famous for his "I Have a Dream"
speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during
the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King,
representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called
"Big Six" civil rights organizations who were
instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington
for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The other leaders and organizations
comprising the Big Six were: Roy Wilkins, NAACP; Whitney
Young, Jr., Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James Farmer
of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). For King, this
role was another which courted controversy, as he was
one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of President
John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. Kennedy
initially opposed the march outright, because he was concerned
it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil
rights legislation, but the organizers were firm that
the march would proceed.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize
the desperate condition of blacks in the South and a very
public opportunity to place organizers' concerns and grievances
squarely before the seat of power in the nation's capital.
Organizers intended to excoriate and then challenge the
federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil
rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and
blacks, generally, in the South. However, the group acquiesced
to presidential pressure and influence, and the event
ultimately took on a far less strident tone.
As a result, some civil rights activists felt it presented
an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm
X called it the "Farce on Washington," and members
of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a
The march did, however, make specific demands: an end
to racial segregation in public school; meaningful civil
rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial
discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights
workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all
workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia,
then governed by congressional committee.
Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success.
More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities
attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting
pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters
in Washington's history. King's I Have a Dream speech
electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with President
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as one of the finest speeches
in the history of American oratory. President Kennedy,
himself opposed to the march, met King afterwards with
enthusiasm - repeating King's line back to him; "I
have a dream", while nodding with approval.