Why you should care
Because Martin Luther King Jr. gave more than one good speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
As thousands gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial with anticipation, a young Southern reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. stood behind the podium. “We must meet hate with love,” he implored his audience in a lofty baritone. A couple of “yeah’s” could be heard. “We must meet physical force with soul force.” A slightly bigger chorus of amens and affirmation. But, for the most part, a sea of silence over the National Mall — reverential silence.
This was not the speech you’re thinking of. On the same spot in Washington, D.C., six years later, King would permanently write his name in the annals of American history. But on this particular day in May 1957, King did not have a dream to communicate but a demand to America’s leaders in Washington: Give us the ballot. King was the headline speaker at what was billed as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, a hastily organized religious gathering meant to test the waters of large-scale public civil rights demonstrations — and to give the charismatic preacher his first national audience. And, although far less well-known than his “I Have a Dream” address, the “Give Us the Ballot” speech that King gave was no less eloquent, and perhaps even more consequential.
The movement needed national visibility.
The U.S. Supreme Court had issued its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring separate public schools for Black and white students to be unconstitutional, in May 1954, but the federal government had done very little to enforce Brown’s integration mandate or to pass any meaningful civil rights laws. So civil rights organizers, buoyed by the momentum of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott King had led in 1956, decided they needed to prod Washington into taking action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had won the courtroom victory in Brown, was wary of public demonstrations. The rise of McCarthyism earlier that decade had created a strong association in the public mind between communism and political protest, and no mass demonstrations for racial justice had yet been attempted. Still, King and other key civil rights leaders, including Bayard Rustin, who would later organize the March on Washington, persisted. The movement needed national visibility. Finally, it was decided that a mass “prayer pilgrimage” would be held in Washington to mark the three-year anniversary of Brown.
The task of organizing the event fell largely on the 45-year-old Rustin, a nightclub singer–turned–activist who had witnessed nonviolent protest firsthand while working with Gandhi’s movement in India. The three-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial would feature prayers, music from the likes of Harry Belafonte and speeches from Black leaders such as congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. And for Rustin, there was just one man who could deliver the event’s main address, one man who could give the movement gravitas on a national stage: the 28-year-old King. “Rustin believed that Dr. King had a potential for charismatic leadership that was unlike anyone else he had encountered,” John D’Emilio, author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, tells OZY. “He wanted Dr. King to have a national platform.”
A crowd estimated at around 25,000 made the pilgrimage from all across the country. The prayers and songs — and the frequent requests to the crowd to refrain from applauding — helped lend a silent sense of purpose to the solemn gathering. But many found it hard to remain completely silent during the rousing speech they were about to hear from the man who spoke last that day.
King began by celebrating Brown as “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity” before focusing on the broader goal of equality, especially voting rights. Built around the refrain “Give us the ballot,” King enjoined Congress and the president (Dwight Eisenhower) to help end the voter suppression still occurring in the South, and to give African-Americans a chance to have a bigger say in their own democratic future. “Give us the ballot,” King intoned, “and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”
King’s plea did not stop with the federal government. He called on “lukewarm” Northern liberals to live up to their ideals, Southern moderates to rise to the occasion and his fellow Black leaders to remain positive and nonviolent. “We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle.” It would not be enough, King argued, to rely on court decisions like Brown to bring whites and Blacks together. “We must seek an integration,” he claimed, “based on mutual respect.”
The jubilant crowd moved in close to King after he finished, patting him on the back and shaking his hand. The young reverend “emerged from the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington as the number one leader of sixteen million Negroes in the United States,” The Amsterdam News, New York’s leading African-American paper, opined. “At this point in his career the people will follow him anywhere.”
The Prayer Pilgrimage did not speed up the pace of justice in the nation’s capital, but it launched King to the forefront of the civil rights movement, and it showed that large, peaceful marches and demonstrations could work. The event proved to be the perfect dress rehearsal for King’s triumphant return to the Lincoln Memorial a few years later.