Marching for Equal Rights: Evaluating the Success of the 1963 March on Washington

Students consider what makes a non-violent protest march successful and by analyzing primary sources, they then evaluate the success of the 1963 March on Washington.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Civic Education and Engagement
Civil Rights
Persuasive Writing and Speaking
Curricular Standards
Common Core
C3 Framework for Social Studies
National History Standards (UCLA)
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science

Download this lesson plan, including handouts, in PDF format.



The August 28, 1963 March on Washington is well known as the largest civil rights march of its time. Over 200,000 people attended and heard speeches delivered by the major civil rights leaders. But, why was it considered a success? What makes a march successful?

Essential Question:How did civil rights activists use nonviolent direct action in the 1950s and 1960s?


Students will:

  • consider what makes a non-violent protest march successful.
  • analyze primary sources.
  • evaluate the success of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington.


  1. Handout – “Evaluating the Success of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  2. July 11, 1963 Memorandum from Rodney H. Clurman to Charles Horsky which details the careful planning involved in preparing for the March
  3. July 17, 1963 Press Conference in which President Kennedy responds to a question about whether the planned march in August would be a handicap to him, and he responds in the negative and discusses the importance of addressing the civil rights issues that give rise to these kinds of demonstrations
  4. August 7, 1963 letter to the leaders of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice from John P. Sisson, a member of that organization, which discusses the importance of having a large turnout of white people, especially Catholics, at the March on Washington
  5. August 13, 1963 letter to President Kennedy from A. Philip Randolph discussing the March and asking for an appointment to meet with the President on August 28
  6. August 20, 1963 Press Conference in which President Kennedy responds to a question about what effect he thinks the March will have, and he responds that it will bring attention to the strong concerns of African Americans
  7. August 28, 1963 Lincoln Memorial Program for the March
  8. August 28, 1963 NARA-541997 photo of crowds overflowing the given area
  9. August 28, 1963 NARA-542008 photo of camera crew on the scene
  10. August 28, 1963 NARA-542045 photo of the crowd assembling
  11. August 28, 1963 NARA-542068 photo of King speaking
  12. August 28, 1963 NARA-49737 selected video of the day
  13. August 28, 1963 Press Release with President Kennedy’s official statement regarding the March
  14. August 28, 1963 Associated Press coverage of the event
  15. September 10, 1963 Proclamation 3554, from President Kennedy in which he calls the attempt of Governor George Wallace and other Alabama State officials to keep Alabama public schools segregated an obstruction of justice, and demands that the resistance end
  16. September 16, 1963 telegram from Roy Wilkins to President Kennedy in which he decries the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four children and demands action from the federal government—including the passage of a strong civil rights bill. If the federal government does not respond, Wilkins notes that African Americans will need to rally together to protect their people
  17. November 14, 1963 Press Conference in which President Kennedy is asked about the status of the civil rights bill and explains that it may not be passed in 1963


Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should have a basic understanding of the struggle for civil rights in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Historical Background and Context

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, one significant form of civil rights activism involved nonviolent direct action. The 1960 sit-in movement, the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the 1963 Birmingham Campaign all set the stage for the largest civil rights march of its time. Planning for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom began in the spring of 1963, with the involvement of “the Big Six,” prominent leaders of some of the major civil rights organizations: Martin Luther King Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and Whitney Young (National Urban League). One of the main goals of the March was the passage of comprehensive civil rights legislation.

On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about civil rights and presented the Civil Rights Act of 1963 to Congress on June 19, 1963. When he was informed about the planned March on Washington, he was initially concerned that a large demonstration at the Capitol might intimidate some senators who would use it as an excuse to vote against his broad-reaching bill which included provisions for equal access to privately owned establishments such as theaters, restaurants and motels; authorizing the attorney general to initiate school desegregation suits when requested by people unable to initiate or maintain legal proceedings; and equal voting standards.

Despite President Kennedy’s concerns, plans for the March developed rapidly. Bayard Rustin, a veteran of civil rights activism, took charge of the operation, renting a tenement in Harlem as his headquarters. Organizers sought the support of labor unions and reached out through religious organizations and other socially active groups to bring in as many participants as possible.

But, not everyone was supportive of this demonstration. The Nation of Islam and Malcolm X belittled the effort, and the Executive Board of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) declined to endorse the event.

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans of all races celebrated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation by joining the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The “Big Six” led the March (all except James Farmer, who was imprisoned in Louisiana), but the most memorable moment came when Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March was orderly and without any violent incidents. The media broadcast the event around the nation and world, providing images of an interracial crowd peacefully demanding change.

Although the March gave hope to many Americans across the country that civil rights problems would be addressed, resistance still flared in many regions. A few days later, in early September, the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, declared that his state would not desegregate its schools, and on September 15, 1963, a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young African-American girls. By the time of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, the civil rights bill had overcome hurdles, but was stalled in Congress.


  1. Discuss with students the meaning of nonviolent direct action protests and review with students the various nonviolent direct action protests that civil rights activists participated in during the 1950s and 1960s.
  2. Provide students with the handout “Evaluating the Success of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and ask students to brainstorm what they consider makes a march for social change successful. Take notes of these standards for the class, asking students to fill in the standards in the first column of their handout. [Some standards might include clear goals for the march, good planning, a large turnout, focusing national and/or international attention on the issues addressed at the march, substantive changes addressing the problems that gave rise to the march (i.e., passage of the civil rights bill).]
  3. Discuss with the students a brief history of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington.
  4. Tell students they are going to use the standards they have brainstormed as they go the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights microsite to analyze primary sources which will help them determine what aspects of the March they think was fully successful or less than fully successful. Tell them to locate primary sources from the list you provide which they will use to fill in the “Primary Source Used and Evidence” column of their handout. Provide them with a list of these primary sources for their investigation:
  5. Tell students that after they have written down the evidence to determine whether or not each particular standard was met (and the primary source they used to provide the evidence), they need to fill in the third column to note whether or not that particular “Standard for Success” was fully met. If so, they will explain how they determined it was met. If it was less than fully successful, they will note how it fell short.
  6. Discuss with students the fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1963 was not passed during President Kennedy’s lifetime, but was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.
  7. After the students have filled in their handouts, have students report back to the class their results and their interpretations. If the primary sources do not provide evidence for some of their standards, discuss with the class where they might find additional sources for evidence. As an extension, you might have students do additional research to find the sources that will help fill in their gaps.
  8. Ask students whether or not the March was a success in historical terms. Why or why not? [Have them consider the possible long-lasting impact of a peaceful, multi-racial gathering, the significance of King’s speech, etc. Why do we still talk about the March today?]


For homework, ask students to imagine they are reporters from August 28, 1964, reporting on the first year anniversary of the March, and write a two-page article on the March addressing in what ways it was successful or less than successful.


Have students compare the effectiveness of the 1963 March on Washington with the strategy and success of other movements’ marches.

Connection to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards -US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T4 -Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home
  • GOV.T1 - Foundations of government in the United States

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language