Celebrities at the 1963 March on Washington

mlk at march on washington

Francis Miller

The 57th March on Washington today will look noticeably different than in years past, with required masks, temperature screenings, and a virtual alternative. However, the spirit of equality and shared humanity will remain familiar—and is as important today as ever.

The first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963 and became the embodiment of what a massive demonstration could look like. It is best known as the place Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream Speech” and is considered a key turning point for the civil rights movement, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although no one knew how important the event would be at the time, its leaders, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, were savvy to what it would take to make an impact.

Even though Dr. King had made clear his fundamental commitment to peaceful protest, the authorities, including President John F. Kennedy, were openly concerned that the gathering would become a riot. Randolph and Rustin worked to not only spread the word, but also to generate positive public relations with the government and general public. They collaborated closely with activists like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP and many others, including the artistic elite in Harlem, where the March on Washington headquarters were located.

A key part of their strategy was to enlist the major celebrities in their network, including Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman to attend and show support. Musical acts by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan (Rustin invested heavily in a massive sound system), helped contribute to the atmosphere of peaceful protest. (The media took note and attended in droves, and photographers captured thousands of images—a few of which are below.)

The massive effort and strategic marketing worked, allowing the March on Washington to be seen clearly and fully as a day of peaceful protest, friendship, and equality for all.

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The Washington Mall

More than a quarter of a million people attended the 1963 rally, filling Washington, D.C.

Media Presence

Over 3,000 journalists and members of the press attended, covering everything from the crowds to the celebrities who arrived.

Sammy Davis Jr.

The famed singer and performer later recalled the day’s impact: “I think it was the most American day in the history of our country, save for perhaps the Battle of Bunker Hill. Or, maybe the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s to be put on that level, for me.”

Jackie Robinson

Sixteen years after Jackie Robinson joined Major League Baseball as its first African American player, he attended the March on Washington with his wife, Rachel (right), and his son, David (left).

Lena Horne

Although Josephine Baker was the only woman to speak officially, many influential women came to show their support, including Lena Horne (here) and Rosa Parks.

Peter, Paul, and Mary

Music was not only a way to boost the crowd, but a way to help convince the general public that this was a peaceful and festive occasion. The trio sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Baez and Dylan were both only 22-years-old at the time. Dylan played previews of his upcoming album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”: “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only A Pawn In Their Game.”

Joan Baez

Baez sang “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome,” which she performed with the Freedom Singers, Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary; and Theodore Bikel.

The Crowd

The NAACP was instrumental in helping to gather and mobilize the turnout, which exceeded expectations.

Integrated Drinking Fountains

Segregation was still rife in the United States. Even the simple act of drinking water together was a protest.

August 28, 1963

The weather that day was in the low-80s, so overheated crowds cooled their feet in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Harry Belafonte

Roughly 50 Hollywood A-listers attended to publicly show their support of the demonstration and to help bring media attention to the event; Belafonte gave a speech, cautioning that discrimination would lead to “artistic sterility” and that the entertainment business should do everything in its power to bring freedom to all.

Ruby Dee

Known for her role in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and later, American Gangster (2007), the actress was politically active and worked closely with civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Black Panthers.

James Baldwin and Marlon Brando

Writer (and Harlem resident) James Baldwin was friends with members of the Hollywood elite, including Marlon Brando, and enlisted their support.

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