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On May 17, 1957, on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s epoch-making decision in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, thousands of people traveled to Washington, D.C. — not for a visit, but for a pilgrimage. The reason for the gathering, in short, was that the milestone court decision had not yet translated to real integration.
“The camera of Paul Schutzer caught these faces in a crowd of 15,000 people who assembled in Washington from 30 different states on a mass ‘prayer pilgrimage for freedom,'” LIFE Magazine noted in its June 3, 1957, issue. “The pilgrimage, on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s segregation decision, was planned to urge the President, Congress and both political parties to make the court’s decision a reality.” (The actual number of participants may have been significantly higher.) This Black History Month, LIFE revisits Schutzer’s striking images, seen here — many of which were not published as part of the magazine’s coverage of the event.
The most important of the day’s speeches, the brief write-up continued, was by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who asked those in attendance to work unrelentingly but for the goal of voting rights and true equality. In an oration that would come to be known as the “Give Us the Ballot” speech, he affirmed the ways in which voting rights were essential to the goal of integration and freedom, and how important he believed it was to face without bitterness the work to be done:
The portraits captured by Schutzer that day were more than an attendance list, the magazine pointed out: they were a visual reflection of the spirit of King’s plea “in the expressions of the pilgrims listening, with prayerful intensity, to the exhortations.”