Marching on Washington: From Symbolism to Substance

marching on washington

Dancers from the Impact Repertory Theater perform at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during the Realize the Dream Rally for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (The Nation)

For the last several days I have bounced from one event to another…SCLC kick-off reception on Thursday, poetry slam on Friday, march and reenactment on Saturday.  A quick skim of my Facebook newsfeed shows photo after photo of smiling semi-“successful”  bourgeoisie Black folks, arms draped over Congressmember So-And-So standing on the Lincoln Memorial or at the foot of the King Monument.  And while commemoration has its place, amidst the pomp and circumstance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington we seem to have lost the point of it all.

What has been presented by the public show reaffirms the revisionist history that celebrates the March as the space where Dr. King, the great messiah of Civil Rights movement, like Moses, went to the mountaintop and received the word of God, “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  It deifies King as the leader, whom all of the half-million others came to DC to follow. (Yes, I’m taking the high estimate…because they always undercount us.)

The #50thMOW reenactments make no mention of Bayard Rustin (Sssshhhhh….you know he was….gasp…gay) or A. Philip Randolph…the commie…who were the real visionaries behind the March.  Not one of the panel discussions mention the shutting out of the sisters who organized, planned, and sang for the March, but not one of whom was invited to deliver her own address.  And, most treasonist, the last three words of the 1963 demonstration are omitted from every single one of the dozens of invites to commemorations that I received…nowhere does it read March on Washington for ‘Jobs and Freedom’.<

And why has the March been presented this way? Because in doing so, we obfuscate the fact that 50 years later, the Black unemployment rate is now higher than it was in 1963 (10% then and 13% now).

By presenting the March as an end unto itself and ignoring the call for freedom, we give ourselves permission to close our eyes to the growing prison industrial complex that incarcerates Black men at 6.4% times the rate of White men.

In making the mood festive rather than reflective, we can ignore the contradiction that allows for Marissa Alexander…the young Black mother in Florida who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a warning shot into the ceiling of her own home to protect herself from her abusive husband, harming no one in the process, vis-à-vis the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin…this generation’s Emmett Till.

A more honest treatment of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom recognizes that the “massing on Washington” served as a flexing of Black power that was meant to usher in substantive change for Black people and was followed up by political pressure that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Moreover, once it became clear that liberal reform measures were not enough to fundamentally change the conditions of the Black masses, huge numbers of Black people became radicalized, joining the ranks of the Black Power movement just two years later.

In the midst of the commemorative concerts, symbolic marches and speech-making, we have lost sight of our purpose. As we move into the 50th anniversary date, let us summon the vision of Rustin and Randolph, may we channel Ella Baker and even heed the valid criticisms of Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael).  Let us recognize our connections to each other – our linked fate and make demands that uplift us all:

Justice…for Trayvon Martin, for Marissa Alexander, for the hunger strikers in the California prisons, and for every soul that is imprisoned and dehumanized by a system of criminal injustice.

Full employment and a livable wage, that every one of us has a right to good jobs with earnings that allow us to support ourselves and our families.

And let’s commit ourselves to the beautiful struggle…to seeing ourselves as change-makers and leaders in our own right.

What can you do right now?

  • melina abdullahJoin the #j4tmla national blackout and refrain from buying or spending money on Wednesday, August 28th….our New Age warning shot as we call for justice for Trayvon Martin, Marissa Alexander and the thousands of Black people who are oppressed and exploited by the prison industrial complex.
  • Demand livable wage jobs and full employment for Black people…and all people. Participate in “Black Workers Rising for Jobs, Justice and Dignity” on September 6th.  Register for free

Melina Abdullah

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Yes, the anniversary of the March is being used as an occasion to obfuscate its origins and motives and messages for our time as well as its time.

    And some of these messages for our time concern all communities and colors. Not only is the Black unemployment rate higher now – the article says 13% – than the rate of 10% of 50 years ago, but in fact when under-employment and recent-years downgrading of jobs is taken into effect it can be said that the true overall unemployment rate – for Blacks, Whites or any other color – is way higher than even that 13%.

  2. marshllr says

    Here is another suggestion: stop marching and start finishing high-school, get trained for a real job not just minimum wage; stop producing babies without fathers so the children can grow up in a stable environment; stop honoring marginal dropouts and potential gang-bangers like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. START honoring the millions of black people who work hard at school, get a good career, and fulfill their promise…..or would that be outside your political agenda?

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