Black America is hurting — from the suppression of voting rights, to police violence to the lack of access to good jobs, education and housing. Tens of thousands of people were determined to bring that message to Washington, DC, on August 24.
About 100,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial as part of a demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The National Action Network called the march to honour the legacy of the civil rights movement — and to speak to the long way we have to go to fulfill its dream.
Union contingents wearing matching shirts provided patches of colour among the sea of people —laborers in orange, letter carriers in blue, public-sector workers in green, teachers in red — members of unions ranged from longshore workers to nurses, autoworkers to communications workers, and many more boarding the buses to make their way to Washington.
Churches, fraternities and sororities turned out. In many cities, NAACP chapters worked with local activists to fill up bus after bus as the interest in going to the march kept pouring in.
The angry response to the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, the vigilante neighborhood watch head who killed unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin last year, was a lightning rod for those who had an urgent message to send about racial profiling and the criminal injustice system.
The sentiment among marchers was a contrast to many of the speakers on the podium — especially those who got the most time. There was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has not the slightest connection to civil rights or anti-racism. The low point, though, had to be a 15-minute speech by Attorney General Eric Holder — the most powerful law enforcement official in the land at a time when racism runs rife in the criminal justice system.
In a comment on the demonstration, Nation.com columnist Dave Zirin paid tribute to the “remarkable, resilient” people who made up the crowd: “The people at this march are the face of resistance to what Dr. King called the 'evil triplets of militarism, materialism and racism'.
“The main speakers at the march, however, did not match the politics and urgency of those who gathered in the Saturday heat. Even more frustrating is that few tried.”
The spirit of the great 1963 march was, instead, to be found among the throngs of people who came to Washington to honor the struggles of the past, and to send an urgent message about those of the present.
Among marchers, there was a sober sense that the promise of King's dream was not just unfulfilled, but slipping further away.
Phyllis Merritt-James, a nurse practitioner and NAACP member from Goldsboro, North Carolina, talked about the battle being waged against Republicans in her state: “Unfortunately, our state is turning back the clock on a lot of advances that we made — not only on voter suppression laws, but also cutting education benefits and reducing the Medicaid expansion President Obama put in place.
“A lot of patients of mine can't make it to their dialysis treatment because legislators have cut the funding for transportation. This is affecting the poor, the elderly, the disenfranchised, the disabled — and that's an atrocity.
“That's why I'm here. We should not be dealing with some of the same issues we dealt with 50 years ago.”
When asked what message he'd like to send the Obama administration, Thomas Rainer, an unemployed worker who came with Laborers International Union of North America Local 57 in Philadelphia, had a one-word answer: “Jobs.”
Vanessa Reed and Winifred Williams are hospital workers and members of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York City who came to Washington on one of several buses the union organised. Reed, who is part of the union's women's committee and the Next Wave Committee, said: “We're here have to keep the union movement alive, because they are trying to eliminate unions.
“We also need to be here because things haven't really changed that much. I wasn't born when Martin Luther King was assassinated, but since I've been born, it's not easy.
“Talk about housing — you can't afford to live anywhere because the rents are ridiculous. They're pushing us out of our homes. They're building skyscrapers that we can't afford and then saying, you have to go.”
Williams, whose own son was shot on the streets of New York, described how she felt when they acquitted Zimmerman: “Trayvon was a slap in the face. Zimmerman should have got something. Just nothing?”
Indeed, Trayvonn's face appeared again and again at the demonstration — on T-shirts, buttons, hand-painted hoodies and signs. His murder, and Zimmerman's acquittal, has lifted the veil on racism in the US.
“As a single mother, I'm marching to empower out children,” said Femi Lowe from Boston. “My son is 18 and at risk for walking down the street. He was recently stopped by the police on his way home from a friend's house at 10 pm at night. The cops asked, 'Why are you here?'
“Our children are at risk. Black youth should not be a target. Enough is enough.”
Leondra Hawkesworth has been working with the family of DJ Henry, a 20-year-old Pace University student and football player killed by police in Pleasantville, New York, three years ago. “I'm marching for DJ Henry and against police brutality,” Hawkesworth said. “I'm tired of seeing all these cases. I'm only 23 years old, and I'm seeing people younger than me dying. I won't stop until we put an end to this.”
Khury Petersen-Smith, a teacher in Boston, linked the struggles of the movement 50 years ago to the activism today. “My mom taught me history of the civil rights movement and about Black pride,” he said. “Trayvon's story is not unique. What is unique is that we stood up for Trayvon all across the country and that is what changed the national conversation about race.”
By contrast, many of the speeches during the official rally in Washington seemed light years away from these concerns.
The most shocking example was Eric Holder, who got some 15 minutes to speak from the platform. During his time, the first Black attorney general said very little beyond marveling at how his own achievements were the result of the civil rights movement.
That's true enough. But it's a safe bet that when Martin Luther King talked about “the bright day of justice ahead”, an African American attorney general presiding over the unprecedented attacks on civil liberties and incarceration of young Black men was not what he had in mind.
By contrast, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, got about a minute.
Organisers of the demonstration rightly included speakers representing broad groups among the population with a stake in the struggle for justice, including women, LGBT people and Latinos, among others.
This was important for a commemoration of one of the most important events in the struggle for civil rights, and the inclusive program helped show that the many struggles against oppression and injustice need to be linked together.
But the program was also shaped by a strategy of featuring prominent Democrats — something explicitly rejected by organisers of the 1963 march.
The discussions continued after the demonstration. That night, several hundred people who packed into the Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore to hear authors and activists Cornel West, Gary Younge and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in a forum titled “A Dream Deferred?: MLK, Trayvon and the Fight Against Racism Today.”
The event was live-streamed to the Internet — allowing some protesters already headed home on buses to listen in, along with a wider audience.
During the speeches, Taylor focused in on the message that blames Black people for the state of Black America: “They insist that Black poverty is worse because of a lack of role models in Black communities. They blame Black parents. They blame saggy pants. They say work harder.
“As if the best parenting in the world or the best-fitting pants in the world can bridge the financial gap between the [US]$11,000 a year the US spends on public school students and the $30,000 the US spends to keep someone in prison.”
[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]