U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marches on Washington and African American Intellectual History

Before my regularly scheduled post, I’d like to take a few lines to talk about what’s going on right now in South Carolina. As you probably know by now, the state was hit by record levels of rainfall last weekend. This rainfall led to serious flooding in most of the state, the deaths of 19 people, and damages that may exceed a billion dollars. The resilience of the people of South Carolina is unquestionable after this week—I have seen many remarkable acts of kindness, from people eagerly searching out volunteer opportunities to giving whatever they can for the sake of the recovery effort. The University of South Carolina opens for classes tomorrow, Monday, October 12—we have not had classes in a week. I cannot wait to see my students in the Contemporary South course I teach, if only to make sure they’re safe and (relatively speaking) coping after the events of the past week.

If you still wish to give something, please check out this list of charities helping out South Carolina in the state’s greatest moment of need—since July. It seems 2015 will be known in history as a year of discontent for South Carolina. The shooting of Walter Scott by an officer of the North Charleston Police Department, the Charleston Massacre at Emanuel AME Church, the divisive debate over the Confederate flag, and the tragedy of this week’s flooding mark a tumultuous year for South Carolina. Through it all, commentators have said that the citizens of the state have demonstrated grace and compassion for one another. Let us remember these most humanistic of qualities in the good times, and not only have them during the bad times.

Saturday, October 10 was witness to the “Justice or Else” rally in Washington, D.C. Coming on the twentieth anniversary of the “Million Man March” of 1995, it is important to take stock of the context of both marches. It is also clear that African American intellectual history can, in many ways, be segmented by marches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Large gatherings in the nation’s capital are a testament to both African American political power and the politics of symbolism, which best show themselves Justice_OR_Else_255x360when arrayed against the civil religious iconography of the Lincoln Memorial.

The threatened March on Washington of 1941 (led by A. Philip Randolph and his March on Washington movement) and the 1963 March on Washington exemplify the aspirations of African American activists and intellectuals who hoped to use such marches to affect political change in an American society which, even at its best, could not shake off the power of the Jim Crow South and its legal and traditional equivalents in the American North and West. One should not forget the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, an early event in the 1954-1965 Civil Rights Movement that gave Martin Luther King, Jr. an early national platform.

As much as these marches provide genuine examples of high points in civil rights protest in America, the 1983 march that commemorated twenty years since the most famous March on Washington also deserves serious attention. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 1983 march gave the American Left a chance to rally during the first term of Ronald Reagan. This march was, perhaps, the most ideologically diverse of them all—including not just civil rights activists, but also nuclear disarmament proponents and women’s rights activists, among other groups. This reflects not so much a move away from African American civil rights—on the contrary, this march was an early moment in Jesse Jackson’s preparations to run for president, and gave other civil rights advocates their biggest platform of the early 1980s—but an increasing understanding of how so many problems perceived by progressives in American society could only be tackled in what we would now call an “intersectional” analysis.[1]

The 1995 and 2015 marches represent something a bit different from the previous marches. Where 1941 and 1963 were against systems of segregation and rampant oppression, and the 1983 event was a rally against complacency on such issues, there is a parallel between 1995 and 2015 in regards to a focus on personal responsibility. The centrality of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, is key to understanding why this is the case. Also, the fact that both marches took place during Democratic administrations—with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress—also needs to be part of this analysis. An understanding of the limits of what the federal government is (or in the case of 1995, was) doing on explicitly “racial” issues (in 1995, welfare reform and the drug war; today, mass incarceration, the aftermath of the drug war, and police violence) animated both the 1995 and 2015 marches (and in many ways the 1941, 1963, and 1983 marches). Critique of African American support for the Democratic Party by African Americans, taken for granted for too easily by media pundits, was also a part of the million man march1995 and 2015 marches (and even more explicitly part of the planned 1941 event and the 1963 march).

Third, the marches represent the diversity of African American thought. Both the 1995 and 2015 marches took place against debates about, and among, African American “public intellectual.” In the case of 1995, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson were among the key public intellectuals; now it is Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry, among others. Also, the fact that there are so many different groups and organizations fighting for African American rights today gives the 2015 “Justice or Else” march a particular flavor. It would be a mistake to talk about just Minister Farrakhan’s remarks without mentioning the presence of Native American, Hispanic, and Palestinian activists at the march as well.

The history of African American protest can, in some ways, be told through its several Marches on Washington. (I am tempted here to start the story back April 1865, with the U.S. Colored Troops marching through Richmond, Virginia—but I digress.) The absences at these marches—most notably a lack of nuanced speaking about the issues facing African American women—is equally important. The changing contours of the African American freedom struggle—no matter the forms it takes—can be seen in these marches and the issue they raised.

[1] Of course, this isn’t to say that the earlier marches didn’t have multifaceted approaches to American problems too. After all, the 1941 march was concerned with African American jobs in defense industries, while the 1963 march pressed for both “jobs and freedom,” the title of the march itself. Indeed, when we consider civil rights, African Americans, and intellectual history, it is important to recognize just how often such figures analyzed the world through an “intersectional” lens, even if they did not refer to it as such.

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  1. South Carolina has indeed been in the national spotlight A LOT this year. Wow.

    On the marches, it seems that they could each be analyzed according to the tension (in various proportions) between both protest and solidarity. For instance, how much has #BlackLivesMatter been a part of the solidarity behind this year’s event? Has that movement pushed this year’s “Justice or Else” theme? Also, what of the demographics of age and gender in more recent incarnations? It feels like African-American women are a more prominent part of today’s solidarity/protest than in the past. But that’s an imprecise impression I’m forwarding. I haven’t yet read any articles or accounts of yesterday’s event/s. -TL

    • On SC: it’s something a lot of folks are talking about here. We really cannot believe it because the state normally stays out of the national spotlight, for better or worse.

      On the marches, you make an excellent point about the importance of solidarity to each march. With 1963, for instance, some of the critique leveled at the march was from people such as Malcolm X who felt the march had been defanged–or, even worse, was set up for co-option by the Kennedy administration from the get-go. With the march from this weekend, it’s hard to say how much Black Lives Matter has had to do with it. As far as I can tell, while some elements were involved with the march, I do not believe it was an event that the entire BLM campaign was on board with.

      Now what I’m about to say is a bit unscientific, but from what I gathered on Twitter yesterday, many folks involved with BLM were disappointed with Farrakhan’s remarks in regards to women–much of it at odds with the BLM movement, which has had black women (and queer individuals, cannot forget that too) at the forefront. And that gets to your final point: Black women are definitely at the forefront of BLM, in a way they were not with these previous march movements due to the leadership models of previous eras (or, to be more direct, the male leader model of organizing, often resisted by women on the ground in the 1960s).

  2. Charles Blow came out swinging today against Farrakhan’s role in this year’s march, pointing out the perils of allying oneself with his polemical views: “Can you separate the march from the messenger, the lightning rod 82-year-old Farrakhan? The answer: Not exactly.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/opinion/million-man-march-20-years-on.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region

    There is an ideological struggle articulated throughout the history of these marches, how diverse voices and groups with different political ideas and strategies join together to form a commons (or actually remain outside), that then becomes fragmented again after the event. I do not know how to read the relevance of Farrakhan nowadays and how his legacy is perceived among Black people–besides the problematic gender and sexuality politics, for me his conflict with Malcolm X was the nail in the coffin. Robert, perhaps you can elaborate more on the importance of Farrakhan?

    • Fascinating column from Mr. Blow and great question. I would say that Farrakhan represents a strain of black thought that emphasizes self-help and, in many ways, separation from mainstream society. I’d say he has so much currency in the African American community precisely because he is so confrontational with mainstream in a way that even Jackson or Sharpton are not.

      That isn’t to say that he has the full support of the African American “community.” As Blow’s column and other writings by African Americans point out, there’s considerable ambivalence among blacks about Farrakhan having so much importance. He is, in short, a leader that has not been “co-opted” by the political process, giving him some currency among African Americans that other leaders simply don’t have. He is complicated, to say the least–and only his relationship with African Americans is harder to read.

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