The 2013 March on Washington was more like a museum than a march.
It felt like an opportunity for the older generation of black folks to reflect on what they had accomplished and for the younger generation to pay their respects. That’s a fine way to spend an afternoon, but a tangible demand for action it is not.
Al Sharpton walked in the front, carrying his National Action Network’s banner with the names of civil rights legends signed on it. People took pictures of Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Martin Luther King III as they led the march. There was a procession and a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial and nine-year-old activist Asean Johnson even spoke. Just outside of the Mall you could purchase just about anything with Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama or Martin Luther King on it – hats, t-shirts, socks, children’s books, portraits, pins, necklaces, placards. It was all very cute.
But watching it all, I felt a bit like Malcolm X had watching the original march in 1963. He wrote in his autobiography that in Washington he’d witnessed the “black man in America fed a dose of another form of the weakening, lulling and deluding effects of so-called ‘integration.’”
While Malcolm retreated from his critiques of King and other civil rights leaders later in life, he steadfastly maintained his disapproval for what he called the “Farce on Washington.” After my afternoon attending the 2013 March on Washington, I understand why.
Malcolm X had such great disdain for the ’63 march because he felt it sold out. After initially being conceived as an unsettled uprising of pointed black anger, the march simmered and devolved into a bourgeois hand-holding love affair that an English newspaper even dubbed, “the gentle flood.”
In his autobiography, Malcolm detailed his feelings about the march in the candid fashion he was known for.
“It was like a movie. The next scene was the ‘big six’ civil rights Negro “leaders” meeting in New York City with the white head of a big philanthropic agency. They were told that their money–wrangling in public was damaging their image. And a reported $800,000 was donated to a United Civil Rights Leadership council that was quickly organized by the “big six.”
Now, what had instantly achieved black unity? The white man’s money. What string was attached to the money? Advice. Not only was there this donation, but another comparable sum was promised, for sometime later on, after the March. . . obviously if all went well.
The original ‘angry’ March on Washington was now about to be entirely changed.”
For a long time that was my view of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – a triumph of the almighty dollar over justified black rage.
But after having spent the last two weeks interviewing and speaking to King’s contemporaries, people like Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, CT Vivian and Joseph E. Lowery, I began to fully understand and appreciate the brilliance of King and his strategy.
King was so effective because nothing he did existed in a vacuum; everything was part of a strategy. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not the coup de grace or even the zenith of the movement, it was simply another part of the strategy. It was a symbolic show of strength to legislators, the president and people watching around the world who may not have realized the true weight and breadth of the civil rights movement. It didn’t need to be angry or disruptive, and it didn’t need to be loud.
In the months and years leading up to the March, SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP and other likeminded organizations had grabbed that nation’s attention with various shows of defiance and civil disobedience. Organized boycotts, sit-ins and demonstrations across the country had very perceptibly disrupted the so-called American way of life. These tactics were effective because like all of King’s moves they had an economic component at their heart.
Boycotts kept stores, districts and transportation lines from their most reliable customers while sit-ins not only forced white store owners and employees to face African Americans at their “Whites Only” counters, but kept whites from sitting at them as well. That meant the owners had to either serve them or not conduct business.
More than the horror of watching police dogs attack peaceful protesters or state troopers beating the daylights out of marchers who had stopped to pray, the disruption of commerce is what grabbed the attention of those in power and the March was a show of solidarity and a promise that things would only intensify if changes were not made.
At Saturday’s 50th anniversary march, there were no previously made threats to deliver on or strategically oriented economic divestments to continue. It was as if marching for the march’s sake was enough to make lasting and meaningful change.
When talking to them about the importance of the original event, many of the march’s architects were quick to remind me of Frederick Douglass’s words, that power concedes nothing without demand. In 1963 the demands had been made and the March served as the symbolic flexing of the civil rights movement’s muscles to back them up.
Saturday’s march seemed an attempt to strike that same pose, but without having done the heavy lifting beforehand.