Marches On Washington Still Making A Difference?

Oct 14, 2011
Originally published on October 14, 2011 12:05 pm
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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, New York's Comic Con, the annual festival now on it's 6th year brings thousands of enthusiasts of comic books, animated graphic novels and video games together under one roof. We'll ask an enthusiast what's hot. That conversation is in just a few minutes.

But first, the civil rights activist and media personality, the Reverend Al Sharpton, is holding a march for jobs and justice on the National Mall tomorrow. Thousands are expected to attend. The rally is scheduled to take a place a day before the new memorial to civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. is officially dedicated in Washington, D.C. Of course, that dedication was delayed from earlier when there was inclement weather in Washington.

But these marches have become a way to express the public's views on everything from abortion rights to animal rights. In fact, there's also a walk for farm animals taking place on the Mall tomorrow as well. So, today we wanted to take a closer look at the history and the impact of protest marches and rallies here in the nation's capital.

For this, we decided to turn to two long-time Washington watchers. Mary Frances Berry is the former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She's currently a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: Also with us, Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back to you also.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Ron, you were saying that the earliest march on Washington that you could find was in 1894. Tell us about it.

ELVING: Well, let's just say in the modern era there was something called Coxey's Army protest, which organized one of the first marches on Washington back in 1894. They marched all the way here from Ohio. And they were trying to get the federal government to help working people more. Do more to create jobs. Not dissimilar from the agenda of the Occupy Wall Street movement going on in New York and in many cities around the country right now.

MARTIN: And, Mary Frances Berry, of course there are the marches in the 20th century, there are a couple of marches that are the ones that people kind of point to as the ones that they think of is the March in Washington. I'm thinking of the Women's Suffrage march in 1913, but of course the march on Washington for jobs and freedom. The latter of course being famous for Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech.

Why don't I just play a short clip of that speech for those who just want to be inspired by it or remember it. Asnd then you can tell us more about why people decide to mount a march like this. Here it is.


DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: One hundred years later, the negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

MARTIN: So, Professor Berry, how does the idea for a march typically start?

BERRY: Well, the idea usually is that there's some policy or legislation that people want changed or enacted that they think will be progress on some particular issue or set of issues. And when the march on Washington took place in '63, it was part of a long history. There had been a Bonus Army marching in 1932 in the Depression, sort of like the jobs thing today with people demanding change or because they were suffering, and they were run out of town but later on they were successful in getting some legislation.

But there's a history of all the way through the anti-war movement, all the way through every kind of movement that people think of. They think Washington, that's the focus. That's where you get legislation done, that's where you get policy done. Those are the people who are making the decisions. Let us go and make change.

And they do two things, though. They, one, reinforce solidarity among the marchers and give them more inspiration, and they're more spirited thereafter. And they also influence policymakers and legislators and the like, even when they say they're not influenced, they usually are.

MARTIN: Ron, are marches usually controversial or are there some times when people are, you know, just happy to see people come in or are they usually controversial? The kind of thing that, you know, pushes somebody's buttons?

BERRY: They're usually controversial. And even when they are not so controversial it's because some deals and agreements have been made with the policymakers, the president, Congress, staff people that the marches won't do certain things. And like the march in Washington in '63, they would get out of town after they marched that day and not stay, and that certain kinds of speeches, like John Lewis's speech for example, would not be made. Then they'd all become controversial in that way. They're just reinforcing a movement that has taken place to because the civil rights movement, the modern civil rights movement, had been going on for quite a long time at that point.

Other kinds of marches and protests, there was a Free South Africa Movement in which I was involved in 1984 during the Reagan era to get legislation passed in Congress for a sanction. That was controversial at first because the policymakers didn't expect it. But as it grew and as the support for it increased, they sort of accepted the idea that something had to be done and something was.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the history of marches and protest demonstrations, particularly those aimed at the nation's capital. We're speaking with University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry and NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

You know, Ron, along the lines of marches that pushed peoples buttons of course there was the Million Man March, which marks - actually it marks it's 16th anniversary this weekend which was designed to raise concerns particular to African-American men.

I'll just play a short clip from that event. Here it is.


MINISTER LOUIS FARRAKHAN: I, say your name, from this day forward, will strive to improve myself spiritually.

MARTIN: And of course, what you're hearing there is a call and response from Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader and the crowd and, you know, you can hear that. So, Ron, this was a particularly, you know - I don't want to say polarizing event but it caused a lot of, you know, controversy. But then the question becomes was it effective and there are those who do believe that it did have an impact on kind of the voter registration and awareness in the next election.

I don't know if you agree with that assessment, but I'm interested in your take on when marches - what are the circumstances under which marches have been effective, you know, politically because if you're coming to Washington, D.C., then the assumption is that you're trying to affect policymakers.

ELVING: Professor Berry made a point a moment ago about the difference that this makes to the people who actually attend the march and that has a tendency to make them more active, more committed, more part of a particular movement. And I think that was certainly the case with the Million Man March that most of the effect took place in the lives of individuals in a sense on the micro-level and in groups of people back in their local communities.

A lot of it was organized by local chapters of NAACP as opposed to the national, for example. And it went back into the community. It went back into the homes of many of the men who took part. Whether it made a big difference to the politics of 1996 in terms of the presidential election, maybe not a great deal of evidence of that. But most of the impact would have been felt in the unifying sense that it gave to black men. And it was a wonderful counterweight to a lot of negative images.

That was part of the reason this billboard was being put out. But it was a device of event, too, because it was very much emphasizing race and it was very much also emphasizing the role of men. So, there were many black women who felt excluded by some of the dynamic of that march.

BERRY: And it was also...

MARTIN: Professor Berry?

BERRY: It was also controversial because Farrakhan is and was controversial, more so at the time, as a figure and seen by some people nationally as a polarizing figure. I think Ron's right that the march itself, the impact was really on the people. And Farrakhan even stated at the march that he didn't want to go lobby Congress for anything, that the purpose wasn't to get anybody in Washington really to do anything.

But I think there are - we must mention the pro-choice marches that took place in the late '80s and in the '90s, which were huge here in Washington and had a major impact on the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices have said since that time that one reason why they didn't overturn Roe v. Wade - a couple of them have sort of intimated this - is because these huge marches that just kept coming.

And even though people said that they wouldn't have any impact and I remember Justice Scalia, in an opinion, said he didn't pay that much attention to them. But I know that he must have paid attention, otherwise he couldn't have written an opinion that he didn't. So, there are marches that do have a major impact on policy, while there are others that just reinforce the participants.

MARTIN: But, you know, Ron Elving, on that, along those lines, I was thinking about - there were some massive marches around the world and in Washington, D.C. in the buildup to the Iraq War and they seemed to have no impact on public opinion at the time in this country. I mean, I remember there were 100,000 people there and you really did not see any impact on broader public opinion. I'm wondering why that is.

ELVING: That is my impression as well. That the anti-Iraq War protests here in Washington and elsewhere never seemed to break through to legislators or certainly to the Bush administration and possibly it was because there was not as much support for that around the country. While it was a billboard for the opposition here, it did not spring from a deep, broad movement all over the country.

MARTIN: And finally, Professor Berry, I'll ask you this. In recent years, it seems that television personalities have been driving these rallies. We mentioned this weekend's protest by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who's now a host on MSNBC. And remember, there was the Restoring Honor rally by Glenn Beck, the former FOX News host, and then there were those two counter-protests organized by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Do I have time to play a couple of clips? I'll just play those short clips.


GLENN BECK: This country has spent far too long worried about scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished and the things that we can do tomorrow.

JON STEWART: I'm really happy you guys are here, even if none of us are really quite sure why we are here.

MARTIN: What about that? Professor Berry, what about that? Why do you think that is?

BERRY: Well, Michel, major media personalities have always come aboard to fuel marches when they take place and organized by other people, just as they are doing with the Wall Street protests. But what's different is that so many media personalities have a platform and they have a following and they are opinionated and people know where they stand on the issues. And that's part of what they're promoting, so that they have the ability to use the media to get their following to come. And they are opinionated and want to express their opinions, so they do this in this new media environment.

MARTIN: You know, one question we did not get to is this whole question of whether new media has changed the way people gather. That's something we'll need to get back together to talk about. So, Mary Frances Berry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She's a former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She joined us on the phone from her home office. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. He directs covers of the capital on national politics and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both.

BERRY: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.