On 17 May 1957, nearly 25,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, featuring three hours of spirituals, songs, and speeches that urged the federal government to fulfill the three-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision. The last speech of the day was reserved for Martin Luther King’s “Give Us the Ballot” oration, which captured public attention and placed him in the national spotlight as a major leader of the civil rights movement.
On 14 February 1957, King and members of the newly organized Southern Leaders Conference (later known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) urged Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration to publicly condemn segregationists’ unwillingness to comply with the Brown decision. In a telegram sent to President Eisenhower, the organizers of the demonstration stated that if Eisenhower would not maintain law and order in the South, “we shall have to lead our people to you in the capitol in order to call the nation’s attention to the violence and organized terror directed toward [men], women, and children who merely seek freedom” (Papers 4:134). When the Eisenhower administration failed to make a public stand in favor of desegregation, King and Thomas Kilgore, Jr., National Director of the Pilgrimage, solicited financial contributions from leaders throughout the country, and asked them to attend the Prayer Pilgrimage which was being organized by Bayard Rustin and others. “We’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality … our nation has a date with destiny and we can’t be late,” King told an audience in New York, imploring whites and African Americans to join the pilgrimage (Booker, “Date with Destiny”).
The pilgrimage was not without internal controversy and civil rights leaders differed on its intent. A. Philip Randolph intended the event to relate to his 1941 effort to use the threat of mass protests to secure civil rights reform. When 77 church, labor, and civil rights supporters met on 5 April in Washington to finalize plans for the pilgrimage, moderates Adam Clayton Powell and Clarence Mitchell sought to ensure that the pilgrimage would not embarrass the Eisenhower administration, and would instead be used to commemorate the Brown decision through prayer.
Although the event attracted less than one half of its intended participants, the pilgrimage featured singing by Mahalia Jackson, and speeches from such prominent leaders as Randolph, Powell, Mordecai Johnson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Roy Wilkins, and Charles Diggs. But it was King’s “Give Us the Ballot” that became the legacy of the pilgrimage. After the event James Hicks of the New York Amsterdam News wrote that King was now the “top Negro leader” and that the “Prayer Pilgrimage was the idea of Martin Luther King alone and no other Negro leader in America was enthusiastic about it” (Hicks, “King Emerges”). Hicks’ article struck a nerve with Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who promptly wrote to the paper to rebuke his claims. Wilkins also sent a letter to King, reminding him that the NAACP had covered many of the expenses of the pilgrimage.
Nonetheless, King had gained national prominence. When King preached at Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church just two days after the pilgrimage “a crowd estimated at more than 1,800 persons crammed into the church, and hundreds of others who failed to gain admittance stood outside to get a glimpse of the nation’s most talked-about leader” (Papers 4:15).
James Booker, “‘Date with Destiny in DC’—Rev. King,” New York Amsterdam News, 11 May 1957.
James Hicks, “King Emerges as Top Negro Leader,” New York Amsterdam News, 1 June 1957.
Introduction, in Papers 4:13–17.
King, “Give Us the Ballot,” Address Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 17 May 1957, in Papers 4:208–215.
King to Eisenhower, 14 February 1957, in Papers 4:132–134.