A dream deferred? Events mark 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

| August 26, 2013
Activists from Washington, D.C., bring their message to the march (DC Protests / flickr)

Black America is hurting -- from the suppression of voting rights, to police violence to the lack of access to good jobs, education and housing -- and tens of thousands of people were determined to bring that message to Washington, D.C., on August 24.

Some 100,000 people in all gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to be a part of a demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. The National Action Network called last Saturday's rally and march to honor the legacy of King and the civil rights movement -- but also to speak to the long way we have to go to fulfill that dream.

Union contingents wearing matching shirts provided patches of color among the sea of people -- labourers in orange, letter carriers in blue, AFSCME in green, teachers in red, and on and on, with members of unions ranging from longshore workers to nurses, autoworkers to communications workers, and public-sector unions of all kinds boarding the buses to make their way to Washington.

In addition to large contingents of Black union members, churches, fraternities and sororities turned out. In many cities, NAACP chapters worked with local activists to fill up bus after bus as the interest in going to the march kept pouring in. The angry response to the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, the vigilante neighborhood watch head who killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin last year, was a lightning rod for those who had an urgent message to send about racial profiling and the criminal injustice system.

Yolanda Woods, a member of AFSCME Local 2481, traveled with her two young daughters from Springfield Ill., on a bus organized by the NAACP. "We knew that we wouldn't have this opportunity again," she said. "This is a part of history and we wanted them to experience that."

The sentiment among marchers was a contrast to many of the speakers on the podium -- especially those who got the most time. There was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has not the slightest connection to civil rights or anti-racism. The low point, though, had to be a 30-minute speech by Attorney General Eric Holder -- the most powerful law enforcement official in the land at a time when racism runs rife in the criminal justice system.

In a comment on the demonstration, Nation.com columnist Dave Zirin paid tribute to the "remarkable, resilient" people who made up the crowd:

The people at this march are the face of resistance to what Dr. King called the "evil triplets of militarism, materialism and racism. The main speakers at the march, however did not match the politics and urgency of those who gathered in the Saturday heat. Even more frustrating is that few tried.

The spirit of the great 1963 march being commemorated on Saturday wasn't to be found on the speakers' platform -- but among the throngs of people who came to Washington to honor the struggles of the past, and to send an urgent message about those of the present.

King's dream unfulfilled 

Among those marchers, there was a sober sense that the promise of King's dream was not just unfulfilled, but slipping further away.

"I'm part of the group that believes the dream has not been realized -- that we have as far to go as we have come," said Jerome Peters from Mitchellville, Md. Peters, who came to the march with his fraternity Omega Psi Phi, attended the 20th and 30th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 march.

"There are social advances -- affirmative action, voting rights laws, that are being pulled back. When I went to school in the late '70s, I didn't know it was a glorious times in terms of affordability and opportunity. I know it's made a difference in my life. Now I'm watching it slowly being pulled away from my children."

Phyllis Merritt-James, a nurse practitioner and NAACP member from Goldsboro, N.C., talked about the battle being waged against Republicans in her state:

Unfortunately, our state is turning back the clock on a lot of advances that we made--not only on voter suppression laws, but also cutting education benefits and reducing the Medicaid expansion President Obama put in place.

A lot of patients of mine can't make it to their dialysis treatment because legislators have cut the funding for transportation. This is affecting the poor, the elderly, the disenfranchised, the disabled--and that's an atrocity. That's why I'm here. We should not be dealing with some of the same issues we dealt with 50 years ago.

Merritt-James talked about how the Moral Monday demonstrations organized by the NAACP in North Carolina--large weekly protests inside and outside the Capitol bulding in Raleigh that have now moved to cities around the state--have linked together the different attacks being waged by Republicans. "They're closing down clinics where women can get free health care and contraception," she said. "Then they turn around and say, 'You're having too many children.' No, you can't have it both ways."

When asked what message he'd like to send the Obama administration, Thomas Rainer, an unemployed worker who came with Laborers International Union of North America Local 57 in Philadelphia, had a one-word answer: "Jobs."

Vanessa Reed and Winifred Williams are hospital workers and members of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York City who came to Washington on one of several buses the union organized. Reed, who works at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, is part of the union's women's committee and the Next Wave Committee, which tries to get a new generation of workers active in the union. She said:

We're here have to keep the union movement alive, because they are trying to eliminate unions. We also need to be here because things haven't really changed that much. I wasn't born when Martin Luther King was assassinated, but since I've been born, it's not easy. Talk about housing--you can't afford to live anywhere because the rents are ridiculous.

Williams had more to say on the housing issue: "They're pushing us out of our homes. They're building skyscrapers that we can't afford and then saying, you have to go. There's no more middle class anymore."

Williams, whose own son was shot on the streets of New York, described how she felt when they acquitted George Zimmerman: "Trayvon was a slap in the face. Zimmerman should have got something. Just nothing?"

Indeed, one face appeared again and again at the demonstration -- on T-shirts, buttons, hand-painted hoodies and signs: Trayvon Martin's. The murder of the unarmed Black teenager, followed by the acquittal of his vigilante killer, has lifted the veil on racism in America. His death, as a result of racial profiling and vigilante justice, was a touchstone for people talking about how racism affects them every day.

In Boston, the passengers on two buses began their trip with speak-outs where they introduced themselves, shared their reasons for marching and started a discussion about what activists can do.

"As a single mother, I'm marching to empower out children," said Femi Lowe. "My son is 18 and at risk for walking down the street. He was recently stopped by the police on his way home from a friend's house at 10 p.m. at night. The cops asked, 'Why are you here?' My children, your children, our children are at risk. Black youth should not be a target. Enough is enough."

Leondra Hawkesworth has been working with the family of DJ Henry, a 20-year-old Pace University student and football player killed by olice in Pleasantville, N.Y., three years ago. "I'm marching for DJ Henry and against police brutality," Hawkesworth said. "I'm tired of seeing all these cases. I'm only 23 years old, and I'm seeing people younger than me dying. I won't stop until we put an end to this."

Khury Petersen-Smith, a teacher in Boston, linked the struggles of the movement 50 years ago to the activism today. "My mom taught me history of the civil rights movement and about Black pride," he said. "Trayvon's story is not unique. What is unique is that we stood up for Trayvon all across the country and that is what changed the national conversation about race."

Prominent Democrats get extra time

By contrast, many of the speeches during the offical rally in Washington seemed light years away from these concerns.

The most shocking example was Eric Holder, who got some 30 minutes to speak from the platform. During his time, the first Black attorney general said very little beyond marveling at how his own achievements were the result of the civil rights movement.

That's true enough -- his rise to one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. government would have been unimaginable before the civil rights era. But it's a safe bet that when Martin Luther King talked about "the bright day of justice ahead," an African American attorney general presiding over the the incarceration of young Black men and civil liberties sacrificed on the chopping block of "national security" was not what he had in mind.

Holder and his boss, Barack Obama, have recently spoken about racial profiling, the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing and other issues related to the New Jim Crow. But that's the first time in five years --and it's only because of the bitter outrage at the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer George Zimmerman.

And we're still waiting for actions to match their words.

There was plenty of time for Holder on Saturday. But when Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old activist who electrified audiences last spring when he spoke out at protests against the closure of 50 schools in Chicago, went longer than he was slotted for, he was cut off in mid-speech. Some in the audience heard Asean say, "I'm not done yet."

Similarly, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, got about a minute.

Education and jobs were among the official themes of the day -- and they were clearly prime concerns in the audience. But there was precious little said from the speakers' platform about how the Obama White House has led the way in the assualt on public education, teachers' unions and public-sector jobs in general.

Organizers of the demonstration rightly included speakers representing broad groups among the population with a stake in the struggle for justice, including women, LGBT people and Latinos, among others. This was important for a commemoration of one of the most important events in the struggle for civil rights, and the inclusive program helped show that the many struggles against oppression and injustice need to be linked together.

But the program was also shaped by a strategy of featuring prominent Democrats -- something explicitly rejected by organizers of the 1963 march.

Dream deferred 

At the end of the demonstration came NAN's Rev. Al Sharpton, who did speak to the concerns of attendees in a number of respects.

He went after the Supreme Court's June decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and called on the audience to protest racist voter ID laws. He criticized the federal government's failure to help poor and working-class Americans facing foreclosure and eviction while devoted trillions to bailing out the banks--something that Holder, as a leader of the Obama adminstration, should be held to account for.

But Sharpton also included a message that would have been familiar at a much more conservative gathering -- personal responsibility.

"Don't you ever think that Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or the right to be a thug," said Sharpton. "We have some housecleaning to do, and as we do, then we will be able to clean up America."

It's a familiar message to African Americans, who hear it from the right and the left simultaneously -- stop asking others to do for you, it's time to do for yourself. This blame-the-victim complaint has been used as a justification for measures, pushed for by Republicans and by Democrats, to cut the social safety net and do away with programs that are still urgently needed, particularly for a Black America that has suffered the brunt of the Great Recession.

This was a discussion that continued after the demonstration. That night, several hundred people who packed into the Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore to hear authors and activists Cornel West, Gary Younge and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in a forum titled "A Dream Deferred?: MLK, Trayvon and the Fight Against Racism Today." The event was live-streamed to the Internet--allowing some protesters already headed home on buses to listen in, along with a wider audience.

During the speeches, Taylor focused in on the message that blames Black people for the state of Black America:

They insist that Black poverty is worse because of a lack of role models in Black communities. They blame Black parents. They blame saggy pants. They say work harder. As if the best parenting in the world or the best-fitting pants in the world can bridge the financial gap between the $11,000 a year the U.S. spends on public school students and the $30,000 the U.S. spends to keep someone in prison.

Against racist profiling and police violence 

Among the crowd at the demonstration earlier in the day, there was a determination to make this protest count. For example, activists organizing around issues of the criminal justice system -- police violence, mass incarceration, racial profiling, the death penalty, drug laws, stop-and-frisk and more -- used the August 24 march as an opportunity to bring their message to a wider audience.

Before the march, as many as 200 people gathered in Farragut Square to speak out about police brutality and racial profiling before marching to the Lincoln Memorial.

A new study by the Washington Lawyers' Committee that shines a light on the racial profiling of Black and Brown residents of the District has ignited a larger fight against racism. "People arrested in this city are Black people, everywhere they go, and for nonviolent crimes," said Seema Sadanandan, a lawyer from the ACLU who worked on the report. "It is time for an end to the war on drugs."

Many of the speakers at the feeder rally had direct experiences with the criminal justice system -- like Shujaa Graham, a former death row prisoner in California and lifelong civil rights activist.

Local activists were joined by activists waging similar fights in other cities--like New York, where racial profiling is under scrutiny, particularly because of the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk.

Five Mualimm-Ak, a civil rights advocate and organizer with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow in New York, who knows firsthand the torture of solitary confinement in prison, said:

We as the people have to take responsibility of our dependency upon the prison industrial complex. We must break the chains of financial and psychological commitment to a system of punishment that removes a person from society and cages them.

Our first response to social dilemma, to a person with problematic behavior, should not be immediately caging them and then profiting off of this method of torture. Solitary confinement is mass incarceration--this is how we immediately cage our citizens for anything; lock them away and hope they figure it out on their own.

For activists who are organizing local struggles against the criminal justice system, the march was an opportunity to come together with a united message. Joseph "Jazz" Hayden of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow said:

We are here to take care of unfinished business...The problem with movements back in the 1960s was that they stopped at the prison wall, they didn't go over them...Now we have the Supreme Court trashing the Voting Rights Act, and we have mass incarceration. Why are we today? We're here to connect the dots. We're here to organize, to meet one another. Our goal should be building a national grassroots movement.

 

Elizabeth Schulte is a journalist for SocialWorker.org. She lives in Chicago. This article was originally published in SocialWorker.org and is reprinted here with permission.  

Ann Coleman, Heather Kangas and Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.

DC Protests / flickr

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