Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.
I have always wondered why Civil War re-enactors are so excited to do what they do. As an outside observer, driving hours and dressing up in blue or grey flannel to march around in 90-degree heat in some open field in Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia seems like a strange way to spend an afternoon. Are the participants commemorating the lost soldiers, making a statement about America today or just enjoying some play-acting?
I’ve never gotten a clear answer. I had similar questions in my mind heading to Saturday’s “March to Realize the Dream” in Washington, D.C.
Would this simply be play-acting with political leaders reminding the marchers of all that had been accomplished in 50 years? Would it be commemorating the men and women who died to provide justice and equality for thousands of African-Americans? Or would it simply be a re-enactment with people wanting to feel what it was like to walk across the National Mall all those years ago?
Ultimately, it was a hodge-podge of all of these things, which is why in the end, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington -- like a Civil War re-enactment day -- felt hollow to me.
The actual history of the March on Washington is a fascinating bit of American history that like many events of the civil rights era gets distilled into some cinematic moment instead of expanded and explained in all of its glory. The organizers of the march had various motivations for coming to Washington, D.C., and even more varied strategies on what they hoped to accomplish. A number of conversations with U.S. President John F. Kennedy behind closed doors had accomplished little in improving civil rights across the nation, and America remained essentially an apartheid state for most African-Americans in the North and South.
Despite weeks -- sometimes months -- of training, teenage Freedom Riders were still being beaten and assaulted for peaceful protests in libraries, lunch counters and on buses. Roy Wilkins, the former head of the NAACP, saw the march as a show of strength to support Kennedy and his attempts to pass civil rights legislation. John Lewis, then-head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), initially favored sit-ins across Washington, D.C., stopping traffic and laying down on the tarmac to prevent planes from taking off at Washington's then-National Airport. There were plans, disagreements, not to mention legitimate fear of government reprisal all the way up until the last speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped to the podium.
It is an amazing history, a history worthy of being shared -- and a history and gravitas that I found somewhat lacking last Saturday.
Let me be clear: It’s hard to re-create the horrible conditions that existed 50 years ago in the United States, and no one would want to live that way ever again. Furthermore, as I walked through the crowds of Americans carrying signs and posters supporting everything from a living minimum wage (something Dr. King advocated for in his original speech 50 years ago) to ending “Stand Your Ground” laws (something Dr. King would have supported), it was clear that many marchers felt like this anniversary was an opportunity to remind the nation of the work still to be done for civil rights and justice. Yes, the very organization of this march shows how much this nation has changed, but at the same time, it glosses over the most urgent problems facing the nation.
Fifty years ago, Kennedy had 16,000 federal troops guarding the suburbs of Washington, D.C., because he assumed there would be riots. No one feared federal troops last Saturday; yet few speakers mentioned Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who point out that likely every man, woman and child who marched on Saturday was tracked or noted by the federal government.
Fifty years ago, the sound system of the march was sabotaged the night before the event and the Army Corps of Engineers was rushed in at the last minute to repair all of the equipment -- at the taxpayers’ expense. Yet there was not enough talking done at the march about how sequestration and grotesque cutting of government funds is harming families all across America who are losing police, fire and other types of protections the government once provided.
In other words, while there were families there to commemorate what Dr. King and other leaders had accomplished, people who sought to bend the political will of Washington, D.C., to more noble purposes, and some who just wanted to feel like they were re-living history, the collection of these motivations did not coalesce into the powerful moment that occurred 50 years ago -- an event that would change not only Washington but the United States as a whole.
Perhaps my expectations were too high and I wanted to see a march that would alter history. However, I still wish that the march had provided more of a searing rebuke of the state of economic, racial and political inequality in America. Something that would jolt this country the way that Dr. King’s March for Jobs and Freedom did years ago. Instead, it felt more like a simple re-enactment, a meaningful but not life-changing afternoon at the National Mall.
Perhaps things will have to get worse before that fierce urgency returns.