March on Washington Revisited


Forty years ago this week, a quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, in the most storied political demonstration in U.S. history. It was an event made more dramatic by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Last Saturday, about 20,000 people, mostly baby boomers, gathered at the memorial to honor the anniversary, with mixed results.

“The obligation of today’s march,” said D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, “is to keep making history.” Like Norton, most of those who addressed the rally (can’t really call it a march since no one moved) assured the crowd it was more than a look back, but a step forward. Yet with the lack of numbers and spirit, one couldn’t help but wonder: Is the mass black movement a thing of the past, now only the stuff of documentary videos and memoirs? Is the idea gone of a huge integrated movement for the rights of African Americans and the poor such as was built after the march? Perhaps it is fairer to say that the near cosmic cohesion of vision and action in 1963 can only happen every so many decades. If there is a movement now, it lacks a guiding metaphor—that unifying vision.

In 1963 unemployment among blacks was high—11 percent (compared to 5 percent among whites)—but the march demanding employment and job training for blacks developed a broader meaning coming after violent attacks on protesters in the South, and at a moment when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still before Congress. So, unity and racial harmony were paramount. Images of people in the huge crowd who had traveled in “freedom” buses and “freedom” trains flashed across TVs nationwide.

In 1963, SNCC chairman John Lewis, then 23 years old, gave a fiery oration. “By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers,” he said, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces, and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.” And of course there was King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who indelibly etched his dream on the national consciousness.

Fast-forward 40 years. Despite improvement in the 1990s, unemployment is today 10.2 percent among African Americans and is back to 5.1 percent among whites, and many issues spoken of then persist. But Saturday the crowd sat politely in folding metal chairs, and in remembrance, King’s radical edge was gone. The SCLC, now run by King’s son, Martin Luther King III, headed the rally but is no longer a leading force. The watered-down dream for this millennium: Drudge up enough votes over the next 15 months to put the Democrats back in power. Simple as that.

The Democratic Party, the crowd was told, is the panacea for police brutality, racial profiling, the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the death penalty, corporate greed, African debt, and homophobia. Seated next to Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, were the presidential candidates Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Howard Dean. Former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson encapsulated the remarks of all the current candidates with his chant, “2004, Bush No More.” He drove home a call to register black voters. “We must go South,” he said. “We lost every race by the margin of unregistered voters. We lost South Carolina by 40,000 votes, and there were 40,000 blacks unregistered. We lost Georgia by 50,000.” Then he passed the collection bucket for SCLC.

Not everyone boils King’s dream down to dollars and Democrats. “Voter registration drives in the ’60s were not only about the ballot,” Adam Lerman, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a youth-activist affirmative action group, told the Voice. “They were about grassroots mobilization.” The civil rights movement focused on dismantling segregation, not placing a party in power. BAMN and groups like it—Selma’s 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement and Atlanta’s National Youth Connections—are trying to protect the 1960s’ civil rights gains being dismantled by the Bush administration, and they had a visible presence at the rally.

“This is no commemoration; this is a demonstration,” said Markel Hutchens of National Youth Connections. “This is a demonstration to launch the new civil rights movement in America, led by the hip-hop generation. We put you morally bankrupt politicians on notice: This movement is coming for you. Like my rapping brother Bone Crusher said, ‘We ain’t never scared.’ ” Hopefully their vision will coalesce before the next commemoration.