Spring Marches on Washington
by Ralph E. Luker on Apr 14, 2000
For good or ill, future generations will look to this spring's
Marches on Washington for clues to understanding us.
In the first, on April 16, labor unions and environmentalists
marched on Washington to protest the policies of the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Environmentalists will remain for
Earth Day, April 22, to emphasize clean energy, pollution and global
warming. A week later, gays and lesbians will mobilize their efforts
with a Millennium March on Washington. On Mother's Day, May 14, Rosie
O'Donnell will lead the Million Mom March for gun control.
Marches on Washington are an old American tradition and they
teach us much about our past. The August 1963 civil rights March on
Washington led by A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr., fixed
our positive impression of such demonstrations. Far surpassing previous
marches' attendance, its two to three hundred thousand participants
gathered peacefully. Its cast of celebrities, dignitaries, musicians and
speakers set expectations for subsequent marches. King's "I Have A
Dream" speech entered the canon of American rhetoric and Congress
enacted major civil rights legislation.
But marches on Washington were at least a 70-year-old tradition
by then. In the spring of 1894, Jacob S. Coxey tried to arouse the
national government to act against unemployment in the midst of a
recession by leading several hundred unemployed workers on a six-week
trek from Ohio to Washington, D.C. He and some followers were arrested
when they presented their petition for relief at the national Capitol.
On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in March
1913, the nation's first large parade of women featured 8,000
suffragists who sought to win votes for women. After a Senate
investigation into his officers' failure to protect them from rowdy
bystanders, the District's police chief was forced to resign.
Progressive reformers have not been the only ones to march on
Washington. In August 1925, 40,000 to 60,000 Ku Klux Klansmen and women
marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in opposition to the United States'
adherence to the World Court. It was the largest demonstration in the
nation's capital before 1963.
Coxey and the suffragists were not the only marchers to face
hostile receptions. In May 1932, nearly 15,000 unemployed men camped
along the Anacostia River as their lobbyists tried unsuccessfully to
persuade Congress to grant relief to veterans of World War I with
advance payment of their veterans' bonus. When, in July, remnants of the
march remained in Washington, President Herbert Hoover told the army to
disperse them. Mounted on a white charger, General Douglas MacArthur
confirmed his arrogant reputation by ordering his men to attack their
former comrades in arms with tear gas and riot weapons and burn their
Marches on Washington became identified with the civil rights
movement in the middle of the last century. A. Philip Randolph,
president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids,
threatened a march of 50,000 to 100,000 people in 1941 to protest
employment discrimination in the federal government and private
industry. Just a week before the march was to occur, President Franklin
Roosevelt avoided possible domestic unrest during the United States'
mobilization for World War II by signing an executive order barring such
In the late 1950s, Randolph and King led three marches of 12,000
to 27,000 people for school desegregation and black voting rights. By
contrast with the brilliantly successful 1963 civil rights march, the
Poor People's March on Washington five years later recalled the bitter
end of the bonus march. Lacking support even from most civil rights
organizations, it ended in squalor, won few concessions and underscored
the divisions of the late 1960s.
Dramatic demonstrations against the war in Vietnam in 1969 and
1971 doubled participation records set by the 1963 civil rights march.
President Richard Nixon's Justice Department ordered the arrest of
demonstrators who tried to disrupt business as usual in Washington by
blocking access to the city. Some 12,000 people underwent indiscriminate
arrest in the nation's largest mass jailing.
Subsequent marches on Washington reacted to the modern women's
liberation movement. Critics of the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe
v. Wade, entitling women to a legal abortion, have staged annual vigils
on its anniversary. Feminists marched in July 1978 for the Equal Rights
Amendment. They gathered in numbers approximating the 1963 demonstration
in April 1989 and April 1992 to defend a woman's right to an abortion.
In 1987 and 1993, advocates of gay and lesbian rights marched on
Washington in similar numbers.
By the mid-1990s, marches on Washington seemed to change in several
ways. The Million Man March of October 1995 and the Promise Keepers'
march of October 1997 were, after all, male events. Breaking with
tradition by making no public policy demands, they offered pledges of
changed selves. A third shift was that official counts of attendance at
the marches became so controversial that Congress banned National Park
Police estimates of the size of the crowds.
Expect no official count of crowd numbers in the month ahead, but
women are marching again and demonstrators have definite ideas about
public policy. We should remember that marchers are exercising
constitutional rights of free assembly, petition and speech. We should
remember that our children will look to these marches and to our
responses to learn more about us.
Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.