March on Washington – 50 Years Later

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary 250,000+ strong March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The reason the march is remembered, and so revered, is of course because of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech. This speech, one of, if not the greatest, speech of the 20th century is part of the American lexicon – at least parts of it are. But in the fifty years since that speech we have done a poor job internalizing the major messages of, not only King’s speech, but the march as a whole.

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I’ve heard estimates of 200,000 to as high as 300,000 people

We primarily focus on the rhetorical message of freedom, but rhetoric without action means nothing. And while the civil rights generation accomplished things that were once thought impossible, the work they dedicated their lives to remains incomplete. While that generation secured our civil liberties (despite some recent attempts to roll them back), the goal of economic justice has remained frustratingly out of reach. How are we to view the progress of advancing freedom when economic justice is anything but?

The reason the march was for jobs and freedom is because the two were linked by the civil rights movement leaders. These leaders understood that good jobs, with decent wages, in a capitalist society like ours, is inextricably linked to freedom. After-all, what’s freedom without autonomy? What’s freedom without opportunity? What’s freedom without the ability to earn a living? What’s freedom without equal treatment?

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The 10 demands made by participants of the March on Washington

Fifty years later though, how can a new generation take the mantle of the civil rights generation and fulfill the mission to advance jobs and freedom? Given our current economic condition we need to re-link the need for jobs with freedom. Black unemployment/underemployment is not just an African-American problem, youth unemployment/underemployment is not just a young-person problem. These are national problems that inhibit all our ability to be free.

Charles Blow wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed piece today that:

“There is a vacuum in the American body politic waiting to be filled by a young person of vision and courage, one not suckled to sleep by reality television and social media monotony.”

While that could be taken as an insult to my generation, something we’re used to in mainstream culture at this point, I view it as a challenge. A challenge to young people to not only “be our own heroes,” as is so often said nowadays; but also to recognize, and accept, leadership when we see it.

There is something very – millennial – about our generation not having a singular leader that we all look up to. We have dozens, hundreds, of different thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and artists but there is no central figure in the activist space that has galvanized all of us as Martin Luther King Jr. did fifty years ago.

Granted, MLK’s importance in American history wasn’t understood (and accepted) by all until the 1990s. In his time he was clearly an important leader, but he was one of many black leaders. It’s in the decades since his death that he has become a symbol for the entire movement. Who, of my generation, is emerging as a leader that can push the political system into action from outside the system?

Common, modern, wisdom holds that we don’t need central figures. Look at how the Occupy Movement organized themselves, no leader, just people. Dissertations could be written, and probably have, about the structure and leadership (or lacktherof) of Occupy. Going without central figures is fine, for awhile, but I’m not sure how long movements can maintain their momentum without singular figures to unify around at some point.

Those times when movements are threatened with petering out, splintering, imploding under the weight of their own expectations, and internal strife. Those times when competing egos bicker, when outside forces attempt to sow discontent, when despair and apathy start to take root. In those times, when it’s so easy for those in a movement to give up, say it’s too hard (and who could blame them), often a central figure is just what the movement needs to keep on pushing. This is, perhaps, what lead to Occupy largely dissipating. And it’s perhaps why we don’t have a mass, activist-lead, movement to reduce income inequality and stamp out unemployment among all communities.

I have heard many say that protesting is dead – The days of marching are over – Civil disobedience is no longer effective. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What I think our generation lacks is leadership that can dramatize the problems of unemployment, and underemployment, as the great civil rights leaders did so many years ago. What I think our generation lacks is the understanding that economic opportunity and freedom go hand in hand in our country. One does not exist without the other. Perhaps, it will be my generation that solves the growing problem of income inequality among classes, and the persistently stubborn inequality among races.

The seeds are there for a mass movement. I just don’t think the leader yet exists that can sow those seeds of mass, non-violent, sustained, activism in our time – for our generation. I hope she, or he, emerges soon.

We too often look at major historical events with the distant lens a textbook forces us to view them through. We too often view ourselves as the end of history instead of as a part of it. As the culmination of all that has come before us, instead of as a growing foundation for all that has yet to come. Are we going to be a generation that continues to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice? Or do we really think Liking the Moral Arc of the Universe on Facebook will do?

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2 thoughts on “March on Washington – 50 Years Later

  1. Rachel Gall says:

    Great post! Unfortunately I agree with the NYT piece that says young people lack a leader with vision and courage. I’ve written about how I think millennials lack an understand how progress is made. Because of online technology/social media, I think “movements” are too fast & furious and then dissipate. Millennials “like” things (like you said) and then move on. There is no sacrifice to a cause.

    Something intriguing I find in the theory of millennials being a ‘Civic’ generation is that this type’s power is not in activism, or creating movements, but establishing a status quo and creating new conventional wisdom. They provide stability rather than making waves. Of course the problem is that if there is a need for idealistic change, Civics aren’t always the best to provide that kind of leadership.

    Anyway, it’s a theory, but it intrigued me because so far that is what I see with millennials: they aren’t creating movements, but I think they are establishing a new civic ethos. A new common sense.

    Personally though, I’m more on the idealistic side (sounds like maybe you are too), so I’m not sure I was born into the right generation 🙂 Maybe that’s the challenge for millennials, how do we maintain idealism in an age where all we want to do is settle down the drama.

    Again, great piece!

    • Thanks Rachel!

      While we may be a civic minded generation, I do still want to see some sort of movement emerge. A new movement won’t approach the scale, and importance, of the civil rights movement, but I think we need some mobilization.

      A promising sign is the on-again, off-again fast food workers strikes. These demonstrations started out small, a few hundred workers, but each time a new demonstration happens it gains more followers and more steam. Between the fast food workers and Walmart employee demonstrations that happened within the past year I think there is a kernel from which to bring a lasting movement.

      It just takes that one leader that can capture the imaginations of everyone – while also putting in the grueling work of consistent activism.

      I always appreciate your insights!

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