It’s Aug. 24 and we have made it to the 50th Anniversary of the original March on Washington. Germaine Light, my Central Illinois Jobs with Justice sister, and my son-in-law, Ed Elder, have fallen in line with a group of AFSCME and NAACP members who, unlike many in the march, like to sing and chant. We reach back into our memory banks to recall verses from the full repertoire: We Shall Overcome, Ain’t Nobody Going to Turn Me Around, and an updated version of This Little Light of Mine that covers all the states that have recently passed restrictive voting rights laws. At the George Washington Bridge about three-quarters of the way along the line of march on Connecticut Avenue, we turn around at its high point and for the first time are able to register just how large the day’s turnout is: the line reaches back to the horizon – we cannot see its end. What we can see are banners and signs identifying attending groups and the issues of concern. The blue and gold colors of the NAACP provide a steady, sure backdrop for a rainbow of other colors. The green t-shirts of AFSCME, the yellow of the UAW, the blue of SEIU, and the orange of the Laborers are visible. Signs for the League of United Latin American Citizens, NOW, Nuns on the Bus, and the International Socialist Organization are also in evidence. Other placards identify issues of importance to the marchers: “Support Trayvon’s Law”, “End Mass Incarceration”, “End the New Jim Crow”, “Justice in the Courts; Justice in the Polls”, and “Jobs Not War”. The image of Barack Obama is ever-present on flags, on t-shirts next to that of Martin Luther King, and even on makeshift posters.
The considerable numbers of young people in attendance is especially gratifying. A large contingent from Howard University is in evidence. Then there is the dread-locked group chanting to a hip-hop beat: “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” Elders in wheelchairs wave the young people on, while in one family group we pass, a seven-month old baby is swaddled in the t-shirt marked the Hill-Robinson Reunion.
As Cornel West will note at an evening talk Germaine and I attend later in the day, the numbers (in the tens of thousands” as the press reports) and enthusiasm of the crowds are the most inspiring part of the day’s events. He notes the importance of a mass movement – both in 1963 and today – to any effort to bring Martin Luther King’s dream to fruition. “Martin did not make the movement,” West reminds us, “the movement made Martin.”
Not surprisingly, West was not invited to speak at the rally preceding the march. Clearly, West is far too critical of the Obama Administration to be among those at the podium. Back in 1963, critics of the standing government were common among the speakers. True, as we have since learned, the Kennedy Administration was given a kind of censorship power over the speeches delivered in 1963. In exchange for letting the 1963 march proceed, Kennedy operatives reviewed the speeches in advance for any “incendiary” comments or lines that were too directly critical of the sitting President. Nevertheless, speakers were not hesitant to deliver strong arguments in support of civil rights legislation that Kennedy either would not or could not move forward. In this regard, John Lewis, then the young Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was particularly pointed in his remarks. The organizers of the 1963 march also sought to maintain their independence from a Democratic Party that was still the political home of a sizable number of segregationist Dixiecrats. Political independence also held out the promise of a certain bargaining advantage among the more liberal wing of the party.
Elected Democrats or individuals closely linked to the party predominated in the roster of speakers at the 2013 march. Of course, John Lewis, now a Congressman representing Georgia, spoke and rightly so. After all, Lewis is the sole survivor among those who spoke in 1963. We also heard from Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, and Cory Booker, to name but a few. This “embeddedness” with the Democratic Party is not surprising. The election of the first black president, the nominee of the Democratic Party, is in many ways the culmination of a long-term process that has generated deep structural links, as well as overlaps in both personnel and agendas, between the party and the civil rights community. I have already mentioned the many signs and other paraphernalia at the march that symbolically tied Obama to Martin Luther King. Conversations with numerous NAACP members on the bus returning back home from the march revealed a deep antipathy within the black community to any critics of Obama. For some, Cornel West is a special source of irritation.
Indeed, credit must be given to the Obama Administration for some of its recent initiatives to protect voting rights and decriminalize minor drug offenses. On the other hand, when considering the full roster of demands articulated at the 1963 march, there is room for considered criticism of the President and the Democratic Party, to say nothing of the Republicans at this historical juncture. Nowhere is this more obvious than with regard to economic justice. In 1963 there were demands for: 1) a massive jobs training programs to overcome unemployment across the color lines; 2) an increase in the minimum wage to provide a decent standard of living for all; 3) an expansion in the Fair Labor Standards Act such that wage and hour regulations could be extended to previously uncovered areas of employment.
Today, with the overall unemployment rate hovering at 7.4 percent and that for blacks at 12.6, with 1 out of 6 workers underemployed, with firms increasingly substituting part-time and contingent jobs for secure full-time employment, and with evidence of mounting violations of protective labor legislation – especially where undocumented workers are employed – we seem further away from realizing the “dream” of decent work for all than ever before. Why we find ourselves at this point is too long a story to detail here. The Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, nevertheless, share in the blame for this dismal state of affairs. Democrats, like Republicans, have become too beholden to corporate largesse in order to fund obscenely expensive political campaigns. A “revolving door” system has also become the norm; this system guarantees politicians lucrative post-office careers in the private sector only if they will do corporate bidding while in office.
Finally, above all, Martin Luther King was a man of peace who saw the direct connection between the moral and economic costs of waging war and a nation’s inability to adequately provide for the economic security and basic human rights of all citizens. It is hard not to believe that Dr. King would have been horrified at the Obama Administration’s pursuit of drone warfare in the Middle East, as well as dismayed by how much of its budget still goes to the military.
Yes, there is room for criticism, but also hope. As suggested by Cornel West, the size and enthusiasm of the crowds on Aug. 24 sustain hope that criticism can translate into change. For ultimately it is from below, out of grassroots social movements, that substantive change occurs and that the “new Jim Crow” assault on civil rights will be overcome and economic security extended.
Patricia Simpson was formerly on the faculty at Loyola University Chicago. She now works part-time for the UIUC Labor Education Program and is an activist with Central Illinois Jobs with Justice.