Bringing the March on Washington into the present

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For students raised on a digital diet of virtual content enrobed in Technicolor, impressing the historical relevance of the March on Washington, documented in black and white, can be daunting.

Compounding that task are the guardrails many educators face in the U.S. today on how to teach classes about Black history, and challenges from the past that remain in the present. As experts note, many of the hurdles facing Black Americans 60 years ago, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech, still exist today.

Yet educators say finding local connections to the civil rights movement or steeping students in the issues organizers faced without idolizing the event itself can help them connect the relevance of that day to today —  and paint a more vibrant picture of the summer of 1963.

“I think it’s important that teachers don’t just highlight moments, but help students understand the context of what makes this moment,” said Kelisha Graves, chief research, education and programs officer for The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center For Nonviolent Social Change. “If we deify it, students lose the context of what it was and the blood, sweat and toil to make this moment successful.”

Mobilizing without the Internet

One way to transform Aug. 28, 1963, from a hallowed moment in time to a more tangible day is to talk about what it took to get 250,000 people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the same day and at the same time. The march was organized and took place during a time when social media, mobile phones and the internet did not exist.

Radio helped to spread the word, as did the Black press. Flyers — many of which have been documented online — were another crucial method for getting details into people’s hands. But the main available tools? People.

“People were going door to door, coalition building and helping them understand the issues,” said Graves. “It’s necessary for educators to reinforce the person-to-person relationship so we don’t lose the human element.”

Lerone Martin, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, suggests educators craft assignments that ask students how they would mobilize people to one location without the digital tools they lean on today. Graves added that an assignment like this helps present the March on Washington in a way that challenges pupils to problem solve for the present.

Martin said teachers could also ask students how they would support marchers. For instance, how would they calculate the time it takes to walk to a location without Google Maps? Or how would food and water be made available — or medical support for, say, someone with asthma who needs an inhaler but can’t access texting apps or mobile devices?

“People met at a specific church, and they would walk from that church to a store to find out how long it took to get there,” said Martin. “They also took lessons from previous campaigns.”

Make it local and immediate

Another way to help students pull the summer of 1963 into the present is to talk with relatives and people in their community about what they were doing and where they were 60 years ago on Aug. 28. Graves encourages educators to consider doing this by assigning an oral history project about the March on Washington.

She added that because photographs and video recordings from the day, including those of King’s speech, are captured primarily in black and white, it can be hard for today’s students to feel the immediacy and energy of the event.

Listening to people who lived through those times and are right in front of them can bring history alive. Students could ask great-grandparents or grandparents what they felt when they heard the news of the event or watched the coverage on TV. And if people attended in person, students could ask about their experiences getting to Washington, D.C., and hearing the speech live.

The march “can feel extremely old and outside any chronological sequences,” Graves said. “To bring flesh and blood to this time, even if someone did not attend, can make the history real and deliver it in living color.”

This article originally appeared in

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