Every time I see a march or rally, I think of the rally of all rallies: the 1963 March on Washington. Forty-nine years later, there is nothing that equals that march in results.
These days folks march to make a point, but back in the day, we marched to get legislative action. Shortly after the March on Washington, both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed. I challenge anyone to tell me what other marches or rallies have yielded. They’ve made a point, and galvanized people, yet they had no direct or immediate results.
I am thinking, in some ways, of the Occupy Movement, a self-admittedly leaderless group that has brought attention to corporate greed and the growing wealth gap in our nation. In many ways Occupy has been extremely effective in making a point, but the point has been lost with their many skirmishes with law enforcement officers, with the condition of the camps they set up, and with the vagueness of their demands. It is specious and ineffective to call for the collapse of capitalism, as desirable as they feel such a goal might be. Instead, the Occupy folks might agitate for tax reform that is redistributive, favoring the poor and middle class instead of the wealthy. Such legislation will not end capitalism, but it will give people something to rally around.
Many people believe that the March on Washington was a spontaneous movement, but the march took months of planning. The highly disciplined organizers vetted every speech and were mindful and deliberate about their goals. To counter negative impressions of African Americans, many of the marchers dressed in their Sunday best. All of the signs spoke to the civil rights movement, not to other issues. Today, marches seem to be a grab bag, with everyone with a cause carrying signs offering up their issues. Again, people are marching almost for the sake of marching.
The Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington were exceptional because of their focus and also because of their utter audacity. Nearly 100 years after Emancipation, people of African descent were standing up for their rights, and given the long period of relative acquiescence, it was wholly unexpected that oppressed people would offer resistance to the status quo. It was wholly unexpected that Black people would have the audacity to stand up. And, it was totally unexpected that a movement of African American people would inspire so many others to also stand up,
In the wake of the March on Washington, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded. In the wake of the march, the National Council of La Raza was founded, and in their own words, “traces its origins to the civil rights movement of the sixties.” The Stonewall riots happened in 1969, and gay rights marches began in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the right wing has appropriated some civil rights tactics with their own marches and movement. Also, unfortunately, civil rights activism has become professionalized, with many activists now on the payrolls of either the government or of organization that rely on foundation funding. In either case, activists are relatively muzzled, so that the radicalism of the 1960s is muted by funding realities or government restrictions. That former President Bill Clinton jettisoned Lani Guinier and President Barack Obama did the same thing to Van Jones is instructive. Can activists coexist with government moderation? Probably not.
Still, the nomination of Paul Ryan to be second on the Republican ticket is a cause for concern to anyone who has the slightest progressive tendency. Ryan would trim the size of government, eliminating key agencies. He opposes contraceptive rights and a woman’s right to choose. He has not taken a position on any civil rights issues, but there is no evidence that suggests he is an ardent supporter of equality. Whether people take it to the streets or to the voting booth, it is clear that those who care about freedom have much to oppose on this Republican ticket.
We can take a page from the March on Washington to organize a highly disciplined opposition to the odious positions that the official representatives of the Republican Party have taken. Or, we can be silent, absent ourselves from the polls, and suffer the consequences.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.