August 28, 2013

Some Notes on The March on Washington: The 50th Anniversary Remix


Chaotic and frustrating.

A hot mess, let's call it.

One reason last Saturday's March on Washington was hot because it was a transformative experience for many, especially the majority who weren't old enough to really remember the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s. The march itself had been transformed, objectively, by two developments this summer. What had been shaping up as an exercise in nostalgia was reshaped by the "not guilty" verdict handed to the killer of Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court's trashing of the Voting Rights Act.

The speeches, those I heard, tended to focus on the latter more than the former, but Trayvon Martin signs (both homemade and printed) were the most common single theme in the crowd. My friend Rahim on the Docks pointed out the most brilliant single expression of this, a tee-shirt being hawked with MLK photoshopped into a hoodie—the Two Martins!

The March itself was the biggest expression of Black solidarity since, perhaps, the exultant all-night street celebrations that followed the announcement that Obama had been elected in 2008. The crowd was at least 70% Black, and heavily working class, both among folks who came on their own and also those who were part of the substantial union contingents and of the community groups, civil rights organizations, sororities and frats, and church congregations spread throughout the crowd.

The Mess

The mess was twofold, political and organizational. We heard, those of us who could force our way toward the front, speaker after speaker, many cut off in mid-sentence. No two minute time limit was imposed on Attorney General Holder and House Minority leader Representative Pelosi, though. (A shameful shift from the 1963 March's ban on elected and appointed government officials speaking.) Nor were they heckled, although marchers from Newark booed their sleazy, ambitious mayor Cory "Hollywood" Booker.

Plenty of demonstrators wore shirts and buttons from Obama's campaigns, maybe a triumph of hope over experience, maybe a clear estimate that the alternative remains the greater evil. Interestingly, however, none of the speakers I heard, including a couple union bigs, particularly emphasized voting.
Instead, the constantly repeated theme was "This is not about commemoration, it's about
mobilization. We're not here to celebrate, We are here to agitate." A commendable sentiment although detailed proposals were pretty sparse. Meanwhile, little was said about racism, let alone the fact that we live in society based on white supremacy.

The organizational mess was nightmarish. Bayard Rustin, the logistical master who made the 1963 March on Washington run like clockwork, was an atheist, and evidence that he was correct in his views lies in the fact that he would surely otherwise have returned to this mortal coil to smite the people who made such of hash of things. Folks started to arrive at 5:00 AM to get good positions for a rally scheduled to start at 8:00 and run for six hours!

There were no marshals to help people find their way to the rally or around the grounds although chainlink fences surrounded the site. The sound system barely reached a third of the way up the reflecting pool in front of the stage, causing dense packing in the front. Most of the people who came may never have heard a single word! A concluding short, actual march was promised from the podium several times. It never actually materialized.

Several friends who know I make a fetish of crowd counting have asked for my estimate. Sorry. There simply is no way to tell. Tens of thousands, maybe many tens of thousands. Folk were still arriving in droves as others wandered around try to find their way to the rally for an hour or more and as many more had already headed back to their buses.

That Was Then…

Because this March on Washington was conceived as a direct remake of the one half a century ago, I want to highlight a few very important particular differences in the context in which the two took place to remind the veterans and school the younger folk.

1. The 1963 March was unprecedented. It was the largest protest march in Washington ever, and there had been precious few small ones since McCarthyism had made demonstrating almost treasonous. Since 1963, I have attended scores of Big Marches in DC—demonstrating around civil rights, the Vietnam war, women's liberation, queer liberation, environmental issues, intervention in Central America, AFL-CIO-called Solidarity Days and, of course, aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now it looks like we may have to head back in defense of the people of Syria in a few days.

2. The coming together of Black and white in 1963 was also monumental. Communities, schools and workplaces in much of the country, not just the Jim Crow South were segregated and this was seen as the natural order of things. It's a far cry from today, where so many white folks feel obliged to cite made-up Black friends in conversation to defend their privileges or just their own efforts to seem cool.

3. That March had the ruling class petrified. 6000 police officers, 2000 National Guards and 4000 regular troops were stationed in DC, Another 19,000 troops were deployed near the city. They're not scared of us now, not like that.

4. The 1963 March came as the culmination, to that time, of a massive and growing Civil Rights Movement which had won big victories and suffered brutal defeats in the preceding years. It was still an unstoppable force, fueled by the courage of ordinary Black women, men and children determined to win through to equality and freedom, no matter what the cost. There is no such single movement today, obviously. But there is always struggle, always resistance, always organization arising from among the masses, as the magnificent and growing Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina reminds us. And it's up to us to build the movement we need.

In closing these personal notes on the 2013 March on Washington, I want to hark back to 1963 one more time. In his 1998 autobiography, John Lewis himself sums up the original March on Washington "as a failure in terms of prompting meaningful action on the part of the government or moving the segregationists in the South from their entrenched positions." But history presents it in a different light, for all its shortcomings, and what we do going forward will determine whether or not Saturday's demonstration will be remembered at all 50 years from now.

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