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The March on Washington at 50

August 28, 2013
By

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Thousands upon thousands of people poured onto the National Mall this past Saturday to join the March for Jobs and Justice and kick off a week of celebration in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. More a sit-and-listen than a march, the event had all the trappings of a well-coordinated affair, but not the kind of grassroots coordination Bayard Rustin and friends managed 50 years ago.

Instead, there was almost a carnival atmosphere, hawkers holding up their wares, from the $10 two-sided t-shirt to the souvenir ticket to this ticketless event, laminated and on a lanyard, one for $10, three for $20. And in some ways it was a carnival, a celebration of that event 50 years ago that has been reduced for many to one phrase from one speech. But this was not just about celebration and commemoration; it was about marking a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement and reminding ourselves (as if anyone at this march needed “reminding”) that the struggle is far from over, made clearly true in the articulation of some of the main issues animating this summer’s event: jobs, voting rights, an end to police brutality and mass incarceration (this latter called “The New Jim Crow” on ubiquitous signs later confiscated by DC police)—in other words, justice, long delayed, still denied.

And folks turned out, en masse, far more than expected, if the mere sprinkling of portable toilets was any indication. After muscling through the crowds of people corralled into ever-tighter spaces by the ubiquitous police barricades that map out politics in public space these days, my date and I grabbed a spot in the shade and sat down to listen to speakers. Oh, and there were speakers. Each was allotted just a minute or two, and music played the speakers off if they went on too long. This was particularly awkward for the speaker who passionately urged us, “And this is the question I want all of you to ask yourselves,” only to have that question drowned out by smooth jazz.

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The speakers were endless, hours and hours, one after another. There was the PepsiCo executive talking about what a wonderfully diverse company Pepsi is, representatives from union after union drawing important parallels between the labor struggles then and now, and then there were the politicians. Two speakers from the Human Rights Campaign talked about the importance of LGBT rights and others talked about the importance of feminism and women’s issues, pointing out the massive difference 50 years makes in the gender make up of who was invited to speak at this rally. Cory Booker got massive applause and said all the right things, his steady call for the privatization of schools and other manifestly conservative policies that much of Saturday’s crowd would suffer from mute behind his charisma and showmanship. Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, and other mainstream politicians all got their turn at the podium and their loud claps from a crowd that stretched back beyond the garish World War II Memorial. I wondered idly if we’d ever have one for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or what looks like our next one in Syria, or if we’ll continue to collectively forget that we are a nation still at war.

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Yes, there was a lot of time to think at this hours-long affair, and the politics in the crowd were much more varied than the politics at the podium. I overheard debates about whether race was still the strongest organizing axis, or if class is more important, what role, if any, the rhetoric of Black Power should play in today’s politics, the role of women’s rights in race- or class-based struggles, the parallels between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, if maybe—just maybe—the real problem is capitalism, and whether or not anything had changed in 50 years.

Surely things have changed, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that the politics of these events and the content of the political struggles these mass gatherings are asked to represent are much, much more complicated than the pictures we are given. The mass of bodies then and the mass of bodies now represent a hugely varying range of political commitments, ideologies, strategies, and actions. As we celebrate the actual anniversary today, it would serve us all well to dig a little deeper into the histories of that time and our own and to remember that the long arc of freedom that Martin Luther King, Jr. told us bends toward justice does not do so in a linear, progressive fashion, nor does it bend that way by itself.