Tens of thousands gathered on Aug. 24, 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the civil-rights watershed where Martin Luther King Jr famously declared: 'I have a dream.' (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The March on Washington at 50: What Now?

Some 175,000 people rallied for racial justice on Saturday, but the march’s demands were diffuse.

BY Cole Stangler

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'We are the forgotten generation,' said Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, 'We are the illegals. We are the apathetic. We are the thugs. We are the generation that you locked in the basement while movement conversations were going on upstairs.'

On Saturday, an estimated 175,000 people gathered at the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Much like the original march, this year’s event, organized in large part by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, drew a multi-racial crowd that poured into the nation’s capital from across the country. Racial justice organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, and labor unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and AFSCME, chartered buses to bring in thousands of members and supporters. Other attendees drove in themselves, from Baltimore and Detroit and Chicago, from rural North Carolina and Virginia.

Nearly everyone who came heralded the significance of the 1963 march. Sho-Ron Graham, a graphic designer from Detroit, told In These Times he attended because he wanted “to be a part of this historical event, to witness the anniversary of the most important speech in this country that ignited a wildfire of the civil rights movement.”

But speakers and crowd members alike at the “National Action to Realize the Dream” expressed the sense that many of that day’s demands for jobs and racial justice—and those of the broader civil rights movement—remain unfulfilled.

“We are the forgotten generation,” Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group of young activists who staged a month-long sit-in at Governor Rick Scott’s office to protest Stand Your Ground laws, told the crowd. “We are the illegals. We are the apathetic. We are the thugs. We are the generation that you locked in the basement while movement conversations were going on upstairs.”

“Racism is more undercover now,” observed Delbert Briggs, an attendee who was raised in the New Orleans suburb of Covington in the 1950s and early 60s, where he says the Ku Klux Klan maintained an active presence. Briggs didn’t make it up to the original march when he was a teenager, but got a spot in the front row this time, along with his adult children. He said he was motivated to attend by the longstanding legacy of racism, high unemployment among black workers, and the importance of restoring voting rights.

Angela Mays, who attended with her two young children and her mother, told In These Times she came because, “I’m raising a young African-American male. The thing that happened with Trayvon really scared me, because that could’ve been my son.”    

'A march in search of demands'

In contrast to its groundbreaking predecessor, which issued specific calls for reforms—such as a national minimum wage hike, a federal jobs program, and the desegregation of all school districts by the end of the year—the 2013 march included no official set of demands. March organizers, including the NAACP and National Urban League, did issue a “21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom,” a broadly progressive political agenda, but that list of 92 policy recommendations stands in contrast to the directness of the 10 demands in 1963.  Critics of the anniversary march called its general lack of focus a major weakness. At a panel organized by Haymarket Books later on Saturday, Guardian columnist Gary Younge said, “1963 was a set of demands in search of a march. Today was a march in search of demands.”

But Geoffrey Millard, chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War, defended the diversity of topics to In These Times,  “Sometimes you can lose message in something this big. But that shows the power of progressive politics when … you get to share a stage where yeah, maybe only one of the speakers talks about an anti-war message, and then one talks about voting rights and one talks about the prison industrial complex. That’s what allows us to bring a progressive coalition this large together and have this type of march.”

Speakers stressed a range of specific issues, from calls for a jobs program to comprehensive immigration reform to halting education privatization. The event’s main speakers—prominent Democratic politicians, including Newark mayor and New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker, Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only living speaker from the 1963 march—touched on some common themes: the need to repeal racial profiling laws like Stand Your Ground, the importance of raising the federal minimum wage and rolling back voter ID laws.

“Almost 50 years ago, I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote,” said John Lewis, then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “I am not gonna stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”

Lewis is leading efforts in Congress to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court nullified in its Shelby County v Holder decision. That key section of the 1965 legislation determined the qualifying formula for “preclearance,” a requirement that certain jurisdictions, mostly located in the South, obtain the approval of the Justice Department for any proposed changes to their voting laws. The Court did not rule the concept of “preclearance” to be unconstitutional, but decided that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions qualified was no longer relevant. Congress will have to come up with a new formula in order for “preclearance” to return to effect.   

The Shelby County v Holder decision has already emboldened Texas and Mississippi to move forward with their voter ID laws, previously stalled by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision. Last month, North Carolina, under Republican control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time since Reconstruction, passed what has been called the most “sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.”

At a separate speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, President Obama is also expected to emphasize the importance of voting rights.

Shorter, and to the point

Earlier in the morning on Saturday, a slate of less prominent speakers touched on a range of topics. In an effort to keep speeches to a strict two-minute limit, event organizers did not hesitate to cut off speakers mid-sentence—even Julian Bond, a founding member of SNCC and the Southern Poverty Law Center, was abruptly and awkwardly cut off mid-speech, drawing boos from the crowd.

In these earlier, shorter addresses, speakers offered critiques of American militarism, mass incarceration and economic inequality, and defenses of civil liberties, LGBT rights and reproductive justice. Jesse Jackson, for instance, called for student loan debt forgiveness, blasting “unnecessary wars” and “drones.” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, called for full access to abortion, birth control, “good union jobs,” and for benefit increases in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Maya Berry, the executive director of The Arab-American Institute, criticized the excesses of the Patriot Act and the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims. Dr. Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, called for an executive order mandating a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal contracts.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip Hop Caucus, delivered a short address about climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline. “People of color have been dealing with environmental justice issues for a long time,” Yearwood later told In These Times. “I think the thing is there’s a lot of other issues that are right there in front of them, like violence and poverty. And so sometimes climate change seems distant.”

“In regards to the KXL, I would hope that more organizations get involved in that issue,” Yearwood said, when asked if the most prominent national black organizations are doing enough to combat climate change. “I do know a lot of our organizations get resources from fossil fuel companies, which clouds their ability to fight as hard as they need to fight. I understand [the importance of] getting those resources. But I would hope they fight for our next generation and recognize that we can’t have a trade-off between getting money now and our future later.”

Generally, the forceful tone of these morning speeches contrasted with that of the more high-profile speakers later in the day, who sidestepped direct critiques of the Obama administration (not mentioning, for instance, its lack of action on the foreclosure crisis, its record number of deportations or its military policies). At the subsequent Haymarket event, Cornel West, who did not speak at the rally, blasted organizers’ unwillingness to take on the Democratic Party leadership. West referred to Al Sharpton as the “bona fide house negro of the Obama plantation.”

To commemorate, or to agitate?

The rally was followed by a march to the Martin Luther King Memorial, following a route similar to that of the original march. Protesters chanted “Jobs, Justice and Peace,” and sang civil rights anthems like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Toward the end of the rally, Reverend Joseph Lowery, a veteran of the civil rights movement and former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, engaged the crowd by urging it to repeat a two-line mantra: “We come to Washington to commemorate. We’re going back home to agitate.”

While the throngs that came to Washington on Saturday were certainly there to celebrate the 1963 march, the second part of Lowery’s call remains decidedly less clear. 

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.

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