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On May 17, 1957, a crowd of approximately 25,000 convened at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. This event included three hours of spirituals, songs, and speeches. It was a call to action targeted at the federal government to uphold the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision fully. The date for the event is significant because it was on May 17, 1954, that the Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate schools was handed down from the Supreme Court. Now, three years later, there were still schools in the South that refused to integrate.

Side profile of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering speech at 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage For Freedom

Then, 28-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was the final speaker for the gathering. His “Give Me The Ballot” speech captivated those present, affirming his position as a leader in the civil rights movement.  The event was the brainchild of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as they sought to challenge the Eisenhower administration to take a stronger stance against Southern segregationists seeking to oppose school desegregation efforts.  

Picture shows gospel singer Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson

Despite differences of opinion on the intent of the event, it still drew a notable crowd of community members, celebrities, and civil rights leaders. Attendees included A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Mahaila Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sydney Pottier, and Mordecai Johnson, among others. While the pilgrimage hoped to draw a more significant number of participants, its impact was far-reaching. Dr. King’s message served as a call to action, challenging the injustices of segregation and discrimination while also demanding voting rights.  

The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom paved the way for future convenings such as the Selma To Montgomery March and the 1963 March on Washington.

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