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Fri, 05.17.1957

The Prayer Pilgrimage For Freedom Demonstration, a story

*On this date in 1957, The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration occurred.

It took place in Washington, D.C., an early event in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The demonstration marked the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a landmark Supreme Court ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker were organizers.

It was supported by the NAACP and the recently founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) had asked the planners to avoid embarrassing the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, and they organized the event as a prayer commemoration. A call for the demonstration was issued on April 5, 1957, by Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Roy Wilkins. According to King, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, sent letters to all his local unions, requesting members to attend the march and provide financial support.

The three-hour demonstration occurred in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte participated in the event. Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda attended. Among the speakers were Wilkins, Mordecai Johnson, and King. King was the last speaker, and it was the first time that he addressed a national audience. He identified restoration and enforcement of voting rights for blacks as an important part of the civil rights struggle.

About 25,000 demonstrators attended the event to pray and voice their opinion. At the time, the event was the largest demonstration ever organized for civil rights. It was the occasion for Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s Give Us the Ballot speech. It is one of King's major speeches. With this speech, King established himself as the "No. 1 leader of 16 million Negroes", according to James L. Hicks of the Amsterdam News. His call for the ballot eventually helped inspire such events as the Selma Voting Rights Movement, related Selma to Montgomery March, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The organizers gained experience, and the march laid the foundation for additional, larger American Civil Rights Movement demonstrations in Washington.

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