Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream" speech during one of the most widely-known protests on the Mall, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Before 1963, the Mall was the site for protesters representing diverse political, religious, and social points of view, including suffragists, the Ku Klux Klan, rabbis, and those fighting against the expansion of the Mall. By using the Mall to protest, they broadened the meaning and purpose of the Mall to be a place where active citizens engaged in public conversations about issues important to them.
Who protested on the Mall before the famous 1963 March on Washington?
On March 3, 1913, over 5,000 women, together with some men, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand voting rights for American women. A hostile crowd along the parade route pushed, jeered, and tripped marchers until troops from nearby Fort Myer were called in to control the crowd. Due to the commotion, only some of the scheduled guests listed in this program were able to speak on the grandstand at the U.S. Treasury building.
On August 8, 1925, 40,000 Ku Klux Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. Organizers claimed the march held no significance, but the Klan's extremely conservative and racist beliefs made this march in Washington near the Mall controversial and significant. Local and federal authorities worried that violence might erupt. To lessen the chances of a violent reaction, officials required in their parade permit that Klansman not wear the face masks traditionally paired with their robes and hoods. The parade proceeded without any violence.
In November 1938, a group of local Washington women protested the removal of cherry trees from the Tidal Basin to make way for the Jefferson Memorial. After unsuccessfully petitioning the White House, the women chained themselves to the trees and hid tools from workmen, successfully delaying the removal of the trees. These protestors believed that the large Jefferson Memorial would spoil the Mall's natural beauty. The Memorial's planners assured protestors that more cherry trees would be planted along the Basin, and they kept their word. The Tidal Basin remains one of the most visited places in Washington during the cherry blossom season each spring.
On October 6, 1943, 400 rabbis marched to persuade the United States to rescue Jewish victims of Nazi genocide in Europe. This event divided the Jewish community, because some Jewish leaders feared the demonstration might provoke anti-Semitic attacks and they urged the rabbis not to demonstrate. Despite the warnings, the marching rabbis spoke with Vice-President Wallace on the steps of the Capitol building, delivered a speech to the press at the Lincoln Memorial, and demonstrated outside the White House.
The 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom called on President Eisenhower's administration to force states to comply with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education desegregating public schools. It was the largest civil rights demonstration to date, with 25,000 demonstrators who gathered for 3 hours at the Lincoln Memorial and heard Martin Luther King deliver his first national address. King's speech, known as "Give Us the Ballot," emphasized voting rights as the next step in the fight for racial equality. This demonstration showed Civil Rights leaders of the power in demonstrating on the Mall.