In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy received strong, perhaps decisive, support from black voters. Nonetheless, at the outset of his administration, Kennedy deferred civil rights legislation to avoid alienating southern Democrats, whose votes were essential to the passage of his overall domestic program. He relied instead on the use of executive authority to implement a number of progressive measures. Most civil rights leaders, however, urged a more aggressive approach.

Finally, in June 1963, Kennedy committed the full powers of his office to the cause of equal rights. He gave a televised address on the problem of racial discrimination, calling it "a moral crisis" and submitted comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress.

When civil rights leaders announced plans for a march on Washington that summer, Kennedy initially opposed the idea, fearing a large demonstration in the capital could turn violent and jeopardize the civil rights bill. After a meeting with the leaders, he was persuaded that the March was "in the great tradition" of American protest.

The main leaders of the March were A. Philip Randolph (who had initiated the idea), the heads of the five key civil rights organizations, plus longtime activist Bayard Rustin. Each one played an important part in America's struggle for civil rights. Letters and articles sent to the president and his staff by these seven leaders provide insights into their individual personalities and viewpoints, and into the roles of the different organizations. Telegrams, which were often sent at times of crisis and decision, vividly capture the urgency of the moment.