By ANDREW POLLACK
The 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, held on Aug. 24, drew perhaps 100,000 participants. The main conclusions to be drawn from the day’s happenings are how very far we need to go to organize, educate, and mobilize around the issues that were raised, and especially, how far we are from building an independent political movement to end racism and achieve social justice. But the gathering also demonstrated how much potential there is to achieve these goals if the growing discontent throughout the nation can be tapped.
A sizable turnout was universally expected on Aug. 24 given the massive, youthful mobilizations a month before against the acquittal of the racist who murdered Trayvon Martin, as well as the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, and the deepening crisis of jobs and services impacting workers of color so disproportionately. In the end, though, the crowd was much more middle-aged and sedate than at the Trayvon Martin rallies, a composition reflecting the commemorative (rather than protest) character stamped upon the event by its middle-class, pro-Democratic Party organizers—e.g. the National Action Network, the NAACP, the Urban League, etc.
The upside of the March was its size, filling both lawns on the sides of the Reflecting Pool plus more at either end. But March organizers and speakers led very few chants from the stage, and as the afternoon wore on the event increasingly took on a picnic atmosphere. (And it was a constrained picnic at that: photos from the ’63 March showing attendees cooling their feet in the Reflecting Pool are a shocking wake-up call for 21st-century marchers who are used to being herded behind police steel barriers—as we were on Aug. 24.)
One notable exception in terms of militant spirit was the Dream Defenders, who formed a circle of 75 to 100 youth, joyfully dancing and chanting. The Defenders had just finished a 31-day sit-in at Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office against the school-to-prison pipeline, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, and for an end to racial profiling.
Still, the organizers had to let some glimpses shine through of the dire social reality and the slowly growing fight against these conditions. Thus, for instance, we heard the short but fiery speech of nine-year-old Chicago Public Schools student Asean Johnson—a speech that would have been even shorter had not Asean said to teachers’ union head Randi Weingarten, “Hey, I’m not done!” when she tried to grab the mike away from him.
Asean achieved national fame with a brilliant speech in Chicago exposing the lies of Chicago Public Schools officials who falsely claimed his and other schools had to be closed for budgetary reasons. In the end, his and some other schools were saved. The self-confident militant spirit produced by the years-long joint fight of teachers’ unions, parents, and students was wonderfully visible in the contingent of marchers from Chicago, who displayed a particular eagerness to trade fightback stories with, and buy literature from, socialists staffing tables at the March.
(We have to note in passing that Weingarten’s attempted mike grab is symptomatic of her disregard for grassroots voices fighting to save school and teachers’ jobs. Just the week before she had given a speech praising labor-management collaboration to “refine” the anti-teacher, anti-student testing mania embraced by Obama and his education bureaucrats.)
Organizers also allowed speeches by the father of Emmett Till, victim of a racist murder in 1955, as well as Trayvon Martin’s family. But the clear sentiment among the huge crowd to actually do something about such atrocities was given no concrete outlet, no announced plan for future activity.
And the very presence on the platform of Eric Holder, Obama’s chief aide in twisting and breaking the laws of the land in pursuit of ever-growing surveillance and denial of civil liberties, and of Nancy Pelosi, his most prominent aide in pushing his reactionary agenda through Congress, was an obscenity, an insult to those present—and those moldering in the grave—who have given their lifetimes or even their lives in the fight for freedom and social justice. The same, of course, can be said about Obama’s scheduled speech on the commemorative events on Aug. 28 (the exact 50th anniversary of the 1963 March).
And Obama-era repression was even visible at the March itself: Radical sports columnist Dave Zirin reported that as a contingent with signs denouncing racist violence and police tactics was gathering, DC cops seized hundreds of their signs with no legal justification. Still, links among attendees and across issues were forged, as is inevitable at such mammoth gatherings and is the reason socialists advocate building them—as well as linking them back to struggles in neighborhoods and workplaces before and after.
The crowd was 85% to 90% Black; probably the majority were middle-aged. The biggest contingents (judging by organizational t-shirts) were the Urban League, NAACP, Black sororities and fraternities, the United Auto Workers, and the Laborers’ Union (LiUNA). The Communications Workers of America had a smaller but still very visible turnout, as did the A. Philip Randolph Institute (considering their general invisibility throughout the year, it was a shock to see the banners of so many local chapters there).
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 1199 of Philadelphia had a respectable turnout. But New York unions had relatively tiny contingents, with the exception again of the UAW.
One UAW marcher from Flint, Mich., said that his Region brought 105 buses, a huge number for such a long trip. Given what’s been happening in auto, and the intertwined crisis in now-bankrupt Detroit, the eagerness of UAW members to rally is understandable. And the potential of the union to easily mobilize such huge numbers is testament once again to the still remaining organizational power of even the most beaten-down unions. But that is a potential yet to be realized in program and in practice.
One indication of that gap was brought out in a New York Times op-ed published the week after the March, in which labor historian William P. Jones compared the marches of 1963 and 2013. Jones, author of a just-released book on labor’s role in the ’63 March, noted a key similarity in the respective eras’ political climate.
“A. Philip Randolph,” said Jones, “the veteran trade unionist who had first called for a march on Washington to protest employment discrimination in 1941, wanted the demonstration to focus on the shortcomings of Kennedy’s economic policies. Pointing out that black workers were restricted to entry-level jobs that were most vulnerable to the automation and offshoring of manufacturing under way in the 1960s, he warned that without measures to end discrimination and create more jobs, blacks would be condemned to struggling for survival ‘within the grey shadows of a hopeless hope.’
“The  march was so successful that we often forget that it occurred in a political environment not so different from our own. Kennedy’s victory over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 signaled a break from the conservatism of the 1950s. But like the election of Barack Obama in 2008, hope for a return to the liberalism of the 1930s was dampened by an administration that rejected ‘old slogans’ like wage increases and public works in favor of tax cuts and free trade to stimulate growth.”
The week after the March another prominent Black author drew important conclusions about its significance and what we need to do to follow up. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” wrote a note on her Facebook page that went viral. In it she promised to link issues of racial injustice with other issues that she admitted not having addressed as regularly, such as U.S. militarism and mass surveillance.
Said Alexander: “For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism, and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration. But as I pause today to reflect on the meaning and significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow.
“Five years after the March, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism—famously stating that our nation was the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’ He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad, and the utter indifference we have for poor people, and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage.
“Five years after the March on Washington, Dr. King was ignoring all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights. Yet here I am decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the relationship between drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home. I have not been talking about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while private prisons yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants.
“I have not been connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as ‘terrorist organizations,’ and the spy programs of the 1960s and 70s—specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations, and assassinated racial justice leaders. I have been staying in my lane.
“But no more. In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after. In the years that followed, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars of justice. Instead he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality for all. He said that nothing less than ‘a radical restructuring of society’ could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right … I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.”
Frankly, Alexander is being a little hard on herself and minimizing the crucial voice she has provided around the New Jim Crow, enabling millions to think anew about connections between issues. But we stand squarely behind her call for all of us to deepen our understanding of those connections. And as socialists we see those connections as part of a system, one governed by a ruling class that combines class exploitation with national and gender oppression, with wars and repression, to maintain its profits.
For that reason we trace the similarities noted by Professor Jones between the Kennedy and Obama Administrations (and, we would add, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, target of Randolph’s first “March on Washington Movement”) back to the ruling-class dominance of this country’s two major parties.
And the conclusion we draw from all that, when viewing this year’s March, is the dire and pressing need for independent politics free of the Democratic and Republican parties, an independent politics rooted in the working class, especially in communities of color and among women workers. Only then will we be able to unleash the militant and creative spirit manifested in the Trayvon Martin rallies, a spirit latent in this year’s March on Washington but shrouded under its organizers’ spirit-damping agenda of subservience to the powers that be.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action