Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

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.) Here LIFE revisits Schutzer’s striking images, many of which were not published at the time.

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:

We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter. I know how we feel sometime. There is the danger that those of us who have been forced so long to stand amid the tragic midnight of oppression—those of us who have been trampled over, those of us who have been kicked about—there is the danger that we will become bitter. But if we will become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns, the new order which is emerging will be nothing but a duplication of the old order… We must meet hate with love.

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.”

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Rallying point for Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. in 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed “Keep-A-Trustin.”

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Two women among the estimated 15,000 people at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

A woman listened intently as speakers voiced hope and warning.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York addressed the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

After sitting through the meeting in quiet dignity, this man broke into a pleased smile.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

A women listed to the closing speech of Martin Luther King Jr.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Fierce concentration showed on the face of Judge Edward R. Dudley of New York during a speech.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

With quiet force, Martin Luther King called for action to implement the court’s decision.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

At the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, women waved their arms in approval, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Actor Sidney Poitier during the prayer pilgrimage, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks at the Prayer Pilgrimage, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

A participant addressed the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

A child at the Lincoln Memorial during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. in 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

A women’s chorus performed in front of Lincoln Memorial.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Martin Luther King at the prayer pilgrimage, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Rev. I. G. Glover from Brooklyn brooded during one of rally’s speeches.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Faces in the crowd at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Faces in the crowd at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Faces in the crowd at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faces from MLK's Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., 1957.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

More Like This

Scene during the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago. history

LIFE’s Best Convention Photos: The GOP

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Republican National Convention

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Democratic National Convention

history

The Road to VJ Day, 75 Years Later

history

Remembering Civil Rights Heroes John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

history

Celebrate the 1970s