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Spring Marches on Washington

by Ralph E. Luker on Apr 14, 2000

Ralph E. Luker

            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
       shanties.

            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
       discrimination.
            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.