The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, or Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, was a 1957 demonstration in Washington, D.C., an early event of the Civil Rights Movement, and the occasion for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Give Us the Ballot" speech.
The demonstration was planned at the occasion of the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court decision against segregation in public schools. The event organizers urged the government to abide by that decision, as the process of desegregation was being obstructed at local and state levels.
The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker. It was supported by the NAACP and the recently founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had asked the planners not to embarrass the Eisenhower administration, thus the event was organized as a prayer commemoration. A call for the demonstration was issued on April 5, 1957, by Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Roy Wilkins.
The three-hour demonstration took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte participated in the event. Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda attended, but were largely ignored. Among the speakers were Roy Wilkins, Mordecai Johnson, and Martin Luther King. King was the last speaker and it was the first time that he addressed a national audience. It was his first Lincoln Memorial speech and set the goal and the agenda for voting rights to become an important part of the civil rights struggle against a reluctant administration. About 25,000 demonstrators attended the event to pray and voice their opinion. At its time the event was the largest organized demonstration for civil rights.
Dr. King's oratory at the event is named the "Give Us the Ballot" speech, as its key section uses this demand as a litany, followed by a listing of changes that would result by African Americans regaining voting rights:
It is one of King's major speeches.
With his oratory King established himself as the "No. 1 leader of 16 million Negroes" (James L. Hicks, Amsterdam News). His call for the ballot eventually helped inspire such events as the Selma Voting Rights Movement, its related Selma to Montgomery March, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The organizers gained experience and the march laid the foundation for further larger Civil Rights Movement demonstrations in Washington.
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