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The purpose of the march was to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans.In the early 1960s, a system of legal discrimination, known as Jim Crow laws, were pervasive in the American South, ensuring that Black Americans remained oppressed.Members of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put aside their differences and came together for the march.Many whites and blacks also came together in the urgency for change in the nation.Many people wanted to march on Washington, but disagreed over how the march should be conducted.Some called for a complete shutdown of the city through civil disobedience.Some, including Rustin (who assembled 4,000 volunteer marshals from New York), were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement.
However, the meeting also provoked the Kennedy administration to take action on the civil rights for African-Americans. Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio, announcing that he would begin to push for civil rights legislation—the law which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Violent confrontations broke out in the South: in Cambridge, Maryland; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Goldsboro, North Carolina; Somerville, Tennessee; Saint Augustine, Florida; and across Mississippi.
Most of these incidents involved white people retaliating against nonviolent demonstrators.
That night, Mississippi activist Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway, further escalating national tension around the issue of racial inequality. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning the march in December 1961.
They envisioned two days of protest, including sit-ins and lobbying followed by a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial.