Prayer Pilgrimage:1957
The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington, D.C. was designed to spur President Dwight Eisenhower to federal action enforcing the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decisions.

The newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spearheaded the prayer rally.

Estimates of the crowd vary, but most place it between 17,000 and 25,000 people—making it the largest civil rights rally in Washington, D.C. up until that point.

Among the major leaders were King, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell and A. Phillip Randolph.

Ethel Payne wrote in the Chicago Defender, “Those who a few months ago thought of young King as a brilliant comet shooting across the sky never to be seen again, came away from the rally with a firmer conviction than ever of his mature wise leadership when he pinpointed the whole basic struggle of the Negro in these simple phrases:”

“Give us the ballot and we will go quietly and non-violently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954. Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights,” said King in part.

While the pilgrimage was in effect a rally, the organizers sought to distance themselves from militant action.

“On behalf of the three chairmen and myself, all activation will take place solely at the Lincoln Memorial. There will be no picketing, no poster walking and no lobbing in connection with Prayer Pilgrimage,” King declared.

King also directly rebuked communists and socialists saying in part, “We have not invited communists…We do not want the participation of these groups nor of individuals or other organizations holding similar views.”

Across the South, civil rights activists had begun a campaign to register black students at public schools. The resistance to integration was widespread and at times violent.

While it could be debated whether the rally was the cause of his actions, Eisenhower did intervene by using federal troops to enforce desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas later that year.

Perhaps as important, the pilgrimage and smaller marches on Washington in 1958 and 1959 served as dry runs for the massive 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom.
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