“Merely contemplating the possibilities for trouble and the logistics of the demonstration has given Washington officialdom its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.”
Life magazine, August 23, 1963
Racial violence and protests in 1963 pressured President John F. Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill. In a televised address on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy proposed legislation to ban racial discrimination in public accommodations, provide protections to black voters, and end segregated education.
Southern senators had the bill blocked in Congress when rumors of a planned demonstration in Washington reached the White House. Fearing that a protest would defeat the legislation, Kennedy worked to ensure its success by encouraging administration officials to fully cooperate with the march organizers.
On June 22, 1963, President Kennedy held a meeting with civil rights leaders to ask them to support compromises on the pending legislation and to call off the demonstration. On both counts he received little support. Afterwards, administration officials and civil rights leaders posed for photographs on the White House steps.
Expectations and Fears
As the day of the march approached, no one really knew what to expect. Demonstrators across the country finalized their travel plans; others were already on the road. Organizers had hoped for as many as 100,000 participants, but would they come and would their journey be blocked along the way?
The capital braced for the worst. The Washington police department canceled all leave. On military bases around the city, thousands of troops were placed on alert, and Pentagon officials reviewed their plans to send soldiers to the Mall if violence erupted.
As the program began, march leaders held an emergency meeting in a small security room behind Lincoln’s statue. The Kennedy administration and moderate members of the coalition had seen an advance copy of John Lewis’s remarks, and they were furious. They thought Lewis was too critical of the civil rights bill and SNCC’s demands were too confrontational. Lewis complained about censorship and threatened to pull out of the program. But for the sake of the coalition, Lewis made last minute changes that he believed did not compromise his message.
March Leaders at the White House
At the conclusion of the day’s events, President Kennedy invited the march leaders to come to the White House. The group posed for photographs and briefly discussed the chances of passing the pending civil rights bill. Several pushed the president on the need to strengthen the bill in areas of employment and education. He was cordial and noncommittal. In the weeks that followed, Kennedy’s legislation stalled in Congress, and most observers believed it was doomed to defeat.