Why Do We March? Reflections on the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington

We are in need of a new political imagination.

Demonstrator at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream,” speech. The weekend anniversary always sparks a slew of articles about how far we have to go on Civil Rights. Most readers of a blog like this would know that, in many cases, equity, the abolishment of segregation, and the strength of voting rights have actually gotten worse since the Civil Rights Movement. The idea that the country has made little progress was punctuated with a shooting in Florida, in which a white supremacist targeted Black shoppers at a Dollar General, killing three. He reportedly initially intended to target an HBCU to make a louder statement.

None of that is the point of this article.

I’d like to look instead at the purpose of the anniversary of the March on Washington, as well as the purpose of marches overall. I offer this as a kind of food for thought and invite feedback if you disagree.

Marches make for an unusual political act. They have never been concretely productive. They do not define movements, nor do they change policy. The word, ‘demonstration,’ defines its own purpose. They can provide great personal value to those involved, but to observers (the audience of a demonstration), they are just an image. Images, though, still have value.

Marches usually come in two forms. The first is an organic, often abrupt convening, where passion—fury or heartbreak or celebration—pour into the streets and people, in a vulnerability, find each other. They provide a communal experience of solidarity. Those that flood the streets after yet another unjust killing are the best example.

Their value as a demonstration pales in comparison to the value of connection. Hopefully, observers will feel empathy, but that’s not really the point. In a sense, these marches show a foundational notion of democracy, feeling a common sense of injustice and expressing it together.

Then there is the planned march, of which the demonstration value is critical to its success. They are grounded most typically on two purposes: to point to a culmination of work, or to point to the start of work to come. The original March on Washington is a standout example of both. Indeed, the March followed years of a brutal slog for change that involved hundreds of thousands of people and there demanded a greater call for justice, and this time with Black and white and brown bodies peacefully occupying the nation’s capitol. It had never been done before; the march itself was a radical act.

Photograph shows a crowd of African Americans and whites on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial; two men in foreground read a newspaper with the headline: "They're Pouring In From All Over."

A frequent (and correct) judgment has been the whitewashing or watering down of Dr. King’s radical work. “I Have a Dream” functioned as a high-level ideological message. Though at the grassroots level, King and the Civil Rights Movement labored for the poor broadly and for those who would otherwise be known as the ‘wretched of the earth.’ People forget—mainly because it’s intentionally unrepeated—that the full name of the event was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The greatest mission of the Movement was what President Lyndon Johnson would co-opt as the War on Poverty. Race and class were consciously linked and attacked congruently, as both love and standards of living had to improve.

The great soul singer and producer Solomon Burke put the understanding best with his line, “None of us are free / one of us are chained.” Most problems cannot be reduced as a single issue (“a race problem” or a “misogyny problem). Chains come in all forms and restrict all people in some way. King, of course, was assassinated while walking the picket line with striking sanitation workers in Tennessee. Eliminating racism requires people choosing love over hate. However, eliminating racism in the country requires profound institutional redress. Unfortunately, “I Have a Dream,” with its message of kindness and tolerance led those that opposed the Civil Rights Movement to reimagine King in his death as something more passive and ‘acceptable’ than were his calls for the abolishment of capitalism and the war machine.

The effects of watering down the message of the March on Washington went much further than just the whitewashing of Dr. King. I believe that many organizers and leftists have internalized the same message—whether they understand the Civil Rights Movement as radical or not—to the point that they’ve watered down the power of marches, but in a different way.

The heralding of Martin Luther King as the great moral leader in world history, and the making of the March on Washington as one of the most important events in American history, have skewed their importance. That now leftists, liberals, and conservatives all admire Dr. King and the March on Washington (as well as marches in general) has left both with a sense that they carry highest moral and pragmatic weight.

They do not.

I consider Martin Luther King as one of the greatest leaders in the history, really, of the world. Undoubtedly, America’s mightiest orator, he further maintained enormous energy and integrity in the political struggle against monumental opposition. However, he was not the Civil Rights Movement. Further, the power of the March on Washington has been misconstrued as the narratives have been rewritten.

Power in demonstration comes from novelty to the community consciousness.

The strategies of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Freedom Riders sitting at segregated lunch counters, were, by nature of their appearance, radical. We do not need to even include the virtue of taking dangerous and self-sacrificial action—beatings, the unleashing of dogs, the blast of firehoses were the most common reactions of the state and segregationists. James Baldwin once wrote, in The Fire Next Time, that, “to be committed is to be in danger.” Indeed, being in danger is the only way one makes change.

A mob of racists beats Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A. This picture was reclaimed by the FBI from a local journalist who also was beaten and whose camera was smashed.
A mob of racists beats Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A. This picture was reclaimed by the FBI from a local journalist who also was beaten and whose camera was smashed.

Agents for civil rights were not only taking dangerous actions, but new ones. Nobody had, as a cultural movement, forced their seat at a whites-only diner counter, nor had so many of multiple races descended on Southern states in defense of the marginalized. In the process of demanding justice, they were demonstrating what a new society looked like. Martin Luther King called the March on Washington, “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” He was right. With a quarter million people of different race, gender, sexuality, and class making their own image of the desegregated, more just society, the March became an unrivaled icon.

Thus, many mass movements have replicated the image. Most recently—and most prominently—marches like the Women’s March in D.C. during Trump’s inauguration, the frequent demonstrations by Black Lives Matter, and the convenings run by abortion clinic leaders and reproductive rights activists at the overturning of Roe v. Wade engaged the same depth of injustice, the same breadth of diversity—if not more so.

Women's March in Washington, D.C.

Why has their impact fallen so flat in comparison?

The fact of the matter is that these demonstrations are not threatening, dangerous, nor novel enough to shake the moral consciousness. Diverse bodies in the street, hand-in-hand, no longer stir the imagination of the better world. Injustice has been able to absorb the image and avoid it. The problems have stayed the same, but they look different now. Our demonstrations have stayed the same, period.

Landlords can no longer put in their lease that their property is for white people only. But mortgage brokers can still redline Black applicants. Employers can no longer deny applicants for their race or gender. Though they can decide not to read a resume based on their name. Maybe a workplace is remarkably diverse, though still a place where its non-white/male employees are paid considerably less. Demanding the desegregation of labor forces has to take on different forms than just showing multi-race and -gender groups of employees, as nearly every corporate advertisement does now.

This finally brings us to the anniversary of the March on Washington. 60 years later, what purpose does it serve?

The function of the March is lost, taking the shape of a demand for justice without the popular backing or work that its original had, as well as memorializing Dr. King himself, not unlike a WWII veterans’ march. It doesn’t ask anything new, but just serves as a reminder of what’s passed. I mentioned earlier the importance of realizing that Dr. King was not the Civil Rights Movement. That the anniversary of the March of Washington continues to honor King most, it minimizes that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the product of generations’ worth of working people’s struggle.

This year—as it is every year—the family of Dr. King held center stage for the event. Why? Because it’s decent. And acceptable.

I mean to make no criticism of the family, their efforts, or their beliefs. I mean to say that the event has created a self-fulfilling problem. The culture has held up Dr. King as a moral arbiter and the author of an event that no one today would feel appropriate to commandeer. So the family takes the mic because the sons and daughters and nieces and nephews have a birthright to represent him. The cycle further distances the March from the people it represented, in favor of the symbol.

We see this even more with the invited speakers and their points. Sacha Baron Cohen called for the end of antisemitism—a continuously necessary but impotent speech. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries—the kind of liberal that King attacks in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—spoke on the need for federal voting rights protections. Never mind that, for decades, Democrats have flaccidly touted the need for voting rights protections while doing next to nothing about it.

All of it is a far cry from ferocity of, say, John Lewis’s speech at the March in 1963. I highly recommend reading the whole speech, but here is a fragment:

By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?

What we need is a political reimagining. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement (as well as Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and all the rest) proved enormously effective for their eras, offering eternal lessons for change and hope. However, they were not a universal template. With all of the similarities we have from now and then, the problems are distinct.

The present day also offers many more challenges and issues that the Civil Rights Movements never encountered. Social media, globalization, explosive rise of monopolies, global boiling, extended wars, en/pandemics, numerous financial crises, and the like, provide obvious hindrances for community. But they also offer fertile ground for broad solidarity—a greater connectedness to injustice when nearly all in the world feel the effects.

Activists cannot keep relying on the tactics of bygone eras. The ‘march’ still serves as a powerful political tool (for participants or observers), when employed with a genuine incentive. However, the impact of the march has essentially been subsumed by structural power interests as the ‘acceptable’ protest. For instance, just a few days ago, American Family Insurance produced an ad honoring the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington. American Family was notorious through the 80’s and 90’s for refusing to insure Black-owned homes. Employees sue regularly on grounds of sex and racial discrimination.

Of course, power often tries to co-opt movements to stymy them. The absorption of Dr. King and the March on Washington into the mainstream not only watered down their meaning but also instilled a sort of dependence on their image.

While we should never forget the grand work of those before us, relying so heavily on the memory of giants undercuts our ability to be novel and address new problems. I cannot offer what improvement would look like beyond that work at the grassroots level, unionizing and community building, mutual aid and solidarity, remain the fundamentals of democratic labor. From there, hopefully a stronger community will form to imagine a new kind of politic.

Much of these ideas came from theories of the American philosophy of Pragmatism. On this topic, I was inspired heavily by Eddie Glaude’s book, In a Shade of Blue. For getting more involved, I recommend looking at local community organizers or movements that could connect you with more resources and people. The Poor People’s Campaign (started by MLK, though I believe has modernized with a new imagination) offers a network of community organizers on a state-by-state basis. I’m part of the Campaign and highly recommend reaching out, if you’re interested.

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