Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom

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The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was a non-violent demonstration in Washington, DC on May 17, 1957, an early event of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and the occasion for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Give Us the Ballot speech.


The demonstration was planned at the occasion of the third anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education, a landmark decision against segregation in public schools of the Supreme Court of the United States, to urge the government to abide by the decision as the process of desegregation was obstructed at local and state levels.

The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph[1] and Bayard Rustin.[2][3] It was supported by the NAACP and the recently founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Adam Clayton Powell Jr influenced the planners not to embarrass the administration and thus the event was organized as a prayer commemoration.[2] A call for the demonstration was issued on April 5, 1957 by Randolph, Martin Luther King, and Roy Wilkins.[4]

The event[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6][7] It was his first Lincoln Memorial speech and set the agenda for voting rights as an important part of the civil rights struggle against a reluctant administration.[8] About 25,000 demonstrators attended the event to voice their opinion. At its time the event was the largest organized demonstration for civil rights albeit it did not fulfill the anticipated attendance.

Give Us the Ballot[edit]

Dr. King's oratory is named the "Give Us the Ballot" speech as its key section uses this demand as an anaphora followed by the different changes that voting rights for African-Americans will bring about.

"Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights ...
"Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law ...
"Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will ...
"Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy ...
"Give us the ballot and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court's decision of May 17, 1954."[9]

It is one of King's major deliveries.[8] The call for voting rights for African-Americans is not only morally right but will lead to change, change for the better for all of America. Leadership is required from the government, from white liberals in the North, white moderates in the South, and from the African-American community. King urged his followers to show love and understanding and abstain from violence.


With his oratory King established himself as the "No. 1 leader of 16 million Negroes" (James L. Hicks, Amsterdam News).[2][10] His call for the ballot eventually led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The organizers gained experience and the march laid the foundation for further larger demonstrations in Washington for the Civil Rights Movement.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Civil Rights Digital Library. "Prayer Pilgrimage for freedom, Washington, D.C.". Retrieved March 2, 2009. [dead link]
  2. ^ a b c The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)". Retrieved March 2, 2009. 
  3. ^ The Martin Luther King, Jr. Encyclopedia. "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)". Retrieved April 29, 2010. 
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Martin Duberman. Paul Robeson. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. p. 447f. ISBN 0-394-52780-1. 
  6. ^ CBS: May 17, 1957
  7. ^ Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. "Prayer Pilgrimage to DC for Civil Rights". Retrieved March 2, 2009. 
  8. ^ a b David J. Garrow (January 19, 2009). "An Unfinished Dream". Newsweek. Retrieved March 5, 2009. 
  9. ^ "Give Us the Ballot" Speech
  10. ^ Mervyn A. Warren. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. InterVarsity Press, 2001. p. 41. ISBN 0-8308-2658-0. 

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