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Social Studies

What to Know About the 2020 March on Washington and How to Teach It

6 Min Read
NEW March Wash

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) walks with protesters at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in 1963.

The National Action Network, founded by Reverend Al Sharpton, is organizing a “Commitment March” in Washington, D.C., on August 28. The march takes place 57 years after the historic March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of 250,000 on the National Mall.

“Now is the time and this is the generation that can realize the dream my father spoke of 57 years ago,” said Martin Luther King III, one of the event’s organizers, in a statement. “Black Americans are still bearing the same hardships my father worked to eradicate, and the only way we can hope to see the future he dreamt of is by continuing the peaceful and radical work he began years ago.”

The goal of this year’s march, dubbed “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks,” is to continue the momentum of the nationwide protests and calls for justice following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota in May. Tens of thousands of protestors are expected. The march is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and end at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. (See the map of the march below.) Speakers will include the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and others who will address the loss of Black lives at the hands of police and advocate for police reform and voter protections.

Source: National Action Network

The NAACP is hosting a “2020 Virtual March on Washington” with similar programming, which will include a call for police accountability reform and an effort to mobilize voters ahead of the November elections. The event will also honor the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

“With the heartbreaking passing of civil rights titan John Lewis, good-willed people all across this country can participate in this march to honor his life and legacy and commit to pursuing a bold Black agenda that advances the unfulfilled promise of our democracy,” said Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of NAACP.

For effective steps to starting healthy discussions about race, class, and disability, check our "5 Ways to Dismantle the Equity Problem."

5 Ways to Dismantle the Equity Problem

Interested in engaging your students in the March on Washington? Try the following activities.

March on Washington Activities for Elementary, Middle, and High School Students

1. 5 Ws and One H of a Protest (Grades 4–12)

Have students do research to find the 5 Ws and one H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) of a civil rights protest. Assign small groups of students one of the following protests: Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro Four and the Sit-In Movement, Birmingham Demonstrations, March on Washington 1963, the Selma-Montgomery March, a local protest held in the student’s city or state, and the March on Washington 2020. Ask them to take notes on:

  • Who was involved in the protest
  • What protesters hoped to achieve
  • When the protest took place
  • Where the protest took place
  • Why the protest took place (including events leading up to it)
  • How the protest was carried out, and how it led to change (e.g., individual responses, government responses, or laws enacted)

Bring the class together to share their findings. Discuss: How were earlier protests different from and similar to the March on Washington 2020?

As an extension, students can create a protest sign that conveys the message of the protest they researched. Ask them to consider:

  • What message best conveys the goals of the protest?
  • What message might persuade others to join the cause?

Invite students to share their signs with the class.

2. Count How Many People Were There (Grades 4–12)

Provide students with a printout of an aerial view of the March on Washington. Have them draw a circle around a section small enough to count the number of people in it. Then count how many sections of the same size are visible in the photo. You may need to repeat the process several times in order to account for everyone in the photo! Ask: How many people do you estimate are in the photo? We believe that there were approximately 250,000 people who attended the march that day. How much of the crowd do you think is represented in this photo? (Similar lesson for reference. Key math standards: 4.NBT.B.5 – Multiply whole numbers up to 1 million and illustrate the calculation using visual models; 7.RP.A.3 – Use proportional relationships to solve multistep ratio problems. Math Practice 2 – Reason abstractly and quantitatively.)

Another way to approach this activity is to start by telling students there were about 250,000 attendees at the March on Washington, provide a photo showing nearly all of them, and have them fill the photo with dots where each dot represents 10,000 people. How do the dots change if each one is 5,000 people? What about 25,000 people? (Key math standard: 4.NBT.B.6 – Divide whole numbers up to 1 million, and illustrate the calculation using visual models.)

3. What’s Changed Since the First March? (Grades 4–8)

Have students choose a piece of U.S. population data that they want to track over the years. Some examples include the percent of Black U.S. residents, the number of Black voters, or the number of Black college graduates. Encourage students to think of data that interests them personally or is a research question that they want to investigate.

Help them construct questions that investigate social justice. Have them research the data in 1963, the year of the first March on Washington, and today (or as current as they can find). If students are ready, have them find additional data for several years in between. Students can then illustrate their findings using a graph of their choice. Allow time for them to take turns sharing their graphs. Facilitate a discussion afterwards about why these questions are important to investigate and what conclusions we can draw from the data. (Similar lesson for reference. Key math standards: 6.SP.B.4 – Display numerical data in plots on a number line; Math Practice 3 – Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.)

4. Write for Change (Grades 4-12)

Write a letter to a local official suggesting one way your town or city can work toward racial justice. Questions for students to consider before they write the letter:

  • What are the problems involving race where you live? Which problem do you think is most important to work on first? What are the first steps to addressing the problem? How will solving the problem benefit kids in your town or city?
  • Are there people in your community who deserve recognition for their effort to address racism? What can be done to support their work?

Remind students to include the following in their letter:

  • Introduce themselves and tell why they are writing
  • Describe the problem as they see it
  • Offer suggestions on how to solve the problem
  • Thank the person for considering suggestions

Students might consider writing to their mayor, alderman, police chief, or other city or town official. They can find a list of officials representing their town or city along with contact information here.

Check out "5 Ways to Dismantle the Equity Problem" for effective steps to starting healthy discussions about race, class, and disability.

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