Reflecting on the commemorative March on Washington

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

That expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been on my mind for the last few weeks. I’ve been wondering what impression the visual image from the recent commemorative March on Washington gave to those who watched the coverage on television.

Consciously or unconsciously, we are all affected by the images that we see. I came of age with protests playing in the background of my emerging sense of social justice. Marches for racial equity, against the War in Vietnam and for the Equal Rights Amendment helped to shape my understanding of how people expressed their views and of how change occurred. I know that many in my parents’ generation felt that the image of the water hoses and police dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham decades ago helped to shift public opinion toward the civil rights protestors. Just as the images of protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square years ago or in Tahrir Square more recently gave the world a sense of the level of commitment that many Chinese and Eqyptians had to change in their respective countries.

I wanted that level of visual power to come out of the commemorative March on Washington. I wanted, and expected, like-minded people to gather in large numbers to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington. I thought that there would be a huge number there who were committed to the need for “jobs and justice,” the theme of the march, or who wanted to acknowledge the aspects of Dr. King’s dream that have been achieved and those that remain. I wanted the masses.

I suspect that there were tens of thousands, but the crowd just wasn’t nearly as full as I had thought it would be. The visual image just wasn’t there. I was surprised – truly surprised — by the number of my own friends, colleagues and family who seemed to never even consider marching.

I know that there were two marches leading to some confusion. I know that there was only minimal marketing of the marches. And, I know that people “march” in other ways, too. They financially support programs that enrich public school efforts. They write and sign petitions for fair wages and jobs with a future. They advocate for affordable housing. Their “marching” may not be physical or visible, but nonetheless they are protesting an injustice and actively promoting a change.

Even so, I also know that when large numbers of like-minded people gather, a lot more people notice. And, when they don’t, people notice, too. I wonder what message the commemorative march gave to people across the country and around the world.

Images matter.

The cultural phenomenon of marches affected me strongly as I was growing up. Culture affects us all, sometimes in ways too subtle to recognize. That’s the topic for Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the last speaker for WRAG’s Brightest Minds series. Dr. Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. This Thursday, he will reflect on how we are all products of history and culture and why an understanding of that history and culture is important as we work to improve our region. Learn more about the event here.

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on the commemorative March on Washington”

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    Maggie Riden
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  2. Tamara, I agree with you 100%. (I remember the days of the protests against the Vietnam War in the early 70s, riding on one of the 40 buses to get to my first job in the old downtown and having demonstrators stop and rock the bus ….) But isn’t collective identity and, therefore, the driving force behind the possibility for large-scale collective action exactly what the powers that be have worked against so hard since the 80s with the ceaseless emphasis on the individual, individual rights, individual freedoms, individual solutions, social media rather than real human contact, etc.? Work against collectivity started on the unions, early masters at turning people out for demonstrations in large numbers, even earlier. The more we hear about the individual (the more we waste valuable time striving to star in our own unique youtube videos?), the less we think we have in common with our fellow citizens and the less likely we are to find the kind of common cause that sends us into the streets. We have turned into very good sheep.

  3. K.L. Davis, thanks for the comment. I wonder what others think?

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