Reflections on the March on Washington


Fifty years ago my parents and I got in the car and drove to Washington, D.C., for the historic March on Washington. I actually got to see Martin Luther King deliver his famous “I have a dream” speech.

My left-wing parents may have been good organizers, but they were poor planners. We drove to DC the day before the march with no plan of where we would stay. We assumed we could still get a hotel room somewhere outside of DC, because with hundreds of thousands of people expected, there would probably be no rooms available inside the city. However, we took a chance.

It was a time before cell phones and the internet, so we simply went to a downtown hotel and asked if they had a room. To our surprise, on the night before the big march, there was a room available. The next morning we learned why; you see, in 1963, in the capital of the United States, there were still hotels that did not allow Blacks.

I didn’t understand all of the politics of the march at the time, but I knew racism existed and that this march would be a blow against it, so I wanted to be there. Later, by reading Malcolm X and others, I came to understand more about the politics.

However, despite its shortcomings, I believe that this march helped put the nail in the coffin of Jim Crow and was truly historic. It also helped form my own politics. I saw a mass of humanity come together, and I could feel the power that manifested itself in the streets of Washington on that day, August 28, 1963.

I have since come to understand the importance of mass action. We have the power to make change only through our overwhelming numbers. When we come together in truly massive actions, we get a little glimpse of what is possible.

Today, 50 years later, I am back in DC. This time, my parents are only with me in my heart, but their influence is surely here.

As I became politically aware growing up in the 1960s, I took part in the massive movement against the war in Vietnam. I saw tremendous strides forward for minorities, women and gays. I saw the working class make real gains.

I thought the world was going to change, that people were going to topple the ruling class and the resources of the world would be used for the benefit of all humanity in harmony with nature. In my 20s, I thought this process was unstoppable and could only move forward. I was wrong.

I could have never dreamed that 50 years later we would still need to fight for jobs and freedom. But here I am still fighting in a world where there is a “New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander has explained. Fifty years later, we still need to fight stop and frisk, stand your ground, and mass incarceration. Abortion rights are being robbed from women, and huge amounts of wealth are being transferred from working people and the poor to the obscenely rich, at a rate that has never been seen before in history.

War has become endemic to our society and is now happening in different parts of the world without end. The U.S. is threatening Iran and North Korea and may be getting ready to intervene in Syria. There is a military buildup in Asia and Africa. Special Forces (or U.S. death squads, as I like to call them) are being used in about 75 countries, and weaponized drones cross borders to kill at will. The entire world has become a battlefield for the U.S. in its never-ending, phony “War on Terror.”

Muslims are being vilified and jailed by the hundreds as the FBI sends provocateurs into mosques to trick and frame Muslims to justify this war on terror. These violations of human rights have not been limited to Muslims, as antiwar activists have had their homes raided by the FBI. We now know that all of us are victims of the massive NSA spying. Everything the government does not want us to know is being classified, and those who expose this information, like Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, are hunted down and locked away.

We in the antiwar movement look not only to the inspiring “I have a dream” speech that King gave in Washington in 1963 but also to his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York. In that speech, King came out strongly against the Vietnam War. He was warned by other civil rights leaders and Democratic Party politicians not to do it; they told him it would hurt the civil rights movement. But Martin Luther King came to understand that in order for Blacks and all people to advance, you must confront the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” So he did just that, and he was killed for it.

Perhaps it was easier for King to understand the need to fight all of these evils together, because Blacks had always been told that it was not time to fight for freedom and equal rights, that other fights were more important and their fight was for the future. It was when Blacks stopped listening to those who told them to wait that they made gains.

But King’s Riverside speech seems to have been forgotten as we rally today on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march. The planners found no room on the platform to talk about war. Though King himself was a victim of FBI spying, they found no room to denounce the NSA spaying or the attacks on Muslims, or Guantanamo, or Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, or anything that might embarrass the Democratic Party.

If I have learned anything in the past 50 years, it is that this is not the way to build a movement.

Joe Lombardo is co-coordinator of the United National Antiwar Coalition. This essay was sent to the UNAC e-mail discussion list, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Photo: Part of the crowd on the Washington Mall, Aug. 24, 2013. By Tony Savino / Socialist Action 

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