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How the March on Washington Worked

Celebrity Participation and Dissidents
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform "When the Ship Comes in" at the March on Washington.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform "When the Ship Comes in" at the March on Washington.
Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers

Call in the celebrities if you want more attention for your event. And don't worry if a few prominent dissidents start yapping -- that never hurts. And so it went with the March on Washington. Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker were among the many celebrities attending.

Singers who performed at the march included Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary. Baez opened the march's program with "Oh Freedom." She also led the crowd in singing "We Shall Overcome" [source: PBS]. Peter, Paul and Mary crooned their version of "Blowin' in the Wind," Dylan's civil rights anthem; it later became one of the era's signature songs [source: PBS]. Dylan followed Peter, Paul and Mary with "Only a Pawn in Their Game," his new song about the murder of Medgar Evers, which occurred two months before the march [source: Highway History].

Contralto Anderson, who fought against racism in the arts, sang the Negro spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" [source: Critical Past]. And Jackson performed the final song as the lead-in to King's famous speech -- the gospel classic "I've Been 'Buked, and I've Been Scorned" [source: History]. Celebrity speakers included actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (the emcees), John Lewis, head of SNCC (and later Georgia Congressman), Rabbi Joachim Prinz, head of the American Jewish Congress, and Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers [source: Stanford].

Lewis had to tone down his speech as some people felt his criticisms of Kennedy and his threat to "march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did," was too intimidating. So those comments were excised [source: Stanford].

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the march's most vocal dissidents were black, namely Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. Carmichael was a civil rights activist and late the leader of SNCC. But over time he moved away from King's theory of nonviolence and toward one of self-defense; he also coined the "black power" slogan. The March on Washington, in Carmichael's view, was "only a sanitized, middle-class version of the real black movement," so he refused to attend [sources: History, The National Archives, Penrice]. Black nationalist leader and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X bitterly referred to the event as "The Farce on Washington" and discouraged fellow Nation of Islam members from attending. Curiously, he himself attended [sources: Stanford, Penrice, Biography].

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