Leaders in the Struggle for Civil Rights

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.

Roy Wilkins

Introduced at the August 1963 March on Washington as "the acknowledged champion of civil rights in America," Roy Wilkins headed the oldest and largest of the civil rights organizations. The NAACP, founded in 1909, aimed to achieve by peaceful and lawful means equal rights for all Americans.

Whitney M. Young Jr.

"Someone has to work within the system to change it" was how Whitney Young often explained his own position and the National Urban League’s role in the struggle for equality. Founded in 1910, the Urban League worked to improve the lives of African Americans, particularly those moving from the rural south to northern cities.

A. Philip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph was revered by many younger civil rights activists, who regarded him as the spiritual father of the movement. "If he had been born in another period, maybe of another color," said John Lewis, "he probably would have been president."

Bayard Rustin

Once called "the Socrates of the civil rights movement," Bayard Rustin did not head an organization. He was known as "an intellectual engineer behind the scenes," and the success of the March on Washington was largely due to his planning.

Martin Luther King Jr.

"It seemed as if every time he spoke, he said something I wanted or needed to hear," said Rosa Parks of Martin Luther King Jr. Mrs. Parks’ arrest, after refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, had sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

James Farmer

James Farmer co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. The organization aimed at "erasing the color line through methods of direct nonviolent action."

John Lewis

John Lewis was committed body and soul to nonviolent action. In 1960, he participated in the first mass lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. As a Freedom Rider, he was badly beaten by a white mob in Montgomery. In 1963, at age 23, he became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC ("Snick") had been formed three years earlier at a conference convened by Ella Baker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.