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March of the Righteous

During 1983’s massive demonstration in Washington, protesters questioned the very foundations of our society

Anti-Racial Organizations, marchAnti-Racial Organizations, march

Anti-Racial Organizations march In Washington, DC on September 1st, 1983.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty

The evening before the biggest protest march here in August, my normal skepticism about such events began to ebb. At the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopalian Clutch on M Street, where the abolitionist Frederick Douglass worshipped a hundred years ago, the pews were jammed with the faithful, revved up by songs, prayer and fiery speeches. Heavy allusions to the Old Testament, suffering and redemption were mixed with good-natured jokes about the interracial makeup of the night’s congregation. I hadn’t seen such a joyous scene in 15 years, since the fading days of the civil-rights movement; a black church rocking with eloquent political passion, black and whites together in the cause of conscience. “Great day! Great day!” a black contralto sang, and everyone joined in. “The righteous are marching. God’s going to build up Zion’s wall.”

Over the years, Washington has seen lots of monster demonstrations in its streets, so many that the seat of our government – and the government itself – is now quite blasé about them. At the AME Church, I began to entertain the fragile notion that this one might be special and couldn’t be ignored.

For the first time in at least a decade, people of conscience were assembled to demonstrate dramatically that something is very wrong with a nation whose political dialogue is dominated by armaments and foreign adventure, instead of human rights and the maldistribution of America’s vast wealth. This was not a single-issue protest, but a gathering – a rare gathering – that massively questioned the very tenets of our society. A demonstration does not change anything by itself, of course, but it can be a comforting beacon for others, casting its light on new political action to restore the legitimacy of forgotten goals.

On the mall the next morning, as the marchers assembled on the dry meadow surrounding the Washington Monument, I did not, at first, feel so righteous. The day was beastly hot, one of those suffocating days that drive Congress and the president out of Washington in August. The gathering crowds looked like stragglers from a disorganized army, clusters of them huddled under the few shade trees, waiting.

Then, out of nowhere, Stevie Wonder appeared at the corner of Fifteenth Street and Constitution Avenue, where the march was to begin. The crowd came alive. Spectators and marchers surged past the cops and parade marshals, shouting his name and elbowing for snapshots. The singer took his place in the phalanx of leaders: Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Reverend Jesse Jackson of Operation PUSH, singer Harry Belafonte, stalwart white liberals like lawyer Joe Rauh and Representative Don Edwards of California and some new faces I didn’t recognize. Overwhelmed by the crush of admirers, the leaders linked arms and tried to look resolute and calm.

With a happy kind of chaos, the march leaders began to move, turning the corner onto the broad boulevard of Constitution Avenue. The crowd swelled behind them. Mothers pushed their children forward into the stream. Scattered groups raised their banners and mobilized. Abruptly, the confusion became purposeful. March for the Dream. Jobs, peace and freedom.

For two hours or so, I stood on the curb and watched them pass by, this unusual collection of 300,000 Americans who heard the call and felt, as I did, the need to be there. The stream of songs and chants, the banners and homemade posters and friendly jostling went on and on. It seemed, above all, an expression of happiness – happy to be there, happy that so many others were too. You could see the spectrum of the nation: Takoma Park against the Bomb. The African Postal Workers Union. The Catskill Alliance. St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, Marero, Louisiana. The American Nurses Association. The Young Dillingers.

A large contingent of black matrons from Atlanta carried the SCLC banner of their fallen leader, Martin Luther King, and swayed as they marched, singing “A-men, a-men.” The Fourth Wall Repertory from New York brought a brass section. The National Education Association was chanting, “We’re fired up, won’t take no more.” And then the feminists from NOW, in green and white, with a saucy poster: ‘Low-Level Munchkins Unite.’

A black group from Louisville, Kentucky, with its own green, red and black silk banner – ‘Bread, Peace and Black Power’ – jumped into the line ahead of the NOW marchers. A platoon of handicapped people in wheelchairs was led by a spastic child. Burly young members of the United Auto Workers and the Communications Workers of America and the United Mine Workers. Gray-faced Dominican sisters and scraggly peaceniks calling themselves the Tennessee Volunteers.

On and on like that – labor unions, peace groups, black civic clubs and others too eccentric to categorize. They marched, and they performed. It was impossible not to feel an emotional surge from this crowd, to share the sunny display of purpose. This was not like the combat and spirit-draining rancor I remembered from the great antiwar demonstrations. Nor did it have the intensely focused objectives of the old civil-rights marches in the Sixties. There was no premonition of violent conflict with the authorities and really no specific list of demands to present.

So what was the point? And why did everyone feel so good? This is 1983, after all, and Ronald Reagan is in the White House (actually, he was at the ranch in California that Saturday), and nobody could pretend that simple nostalgia for the glory days of the civil-rights movement would alter political realities. Nostalgia was certainly part of what everyone felt, myself included, and by itself that is an unproductive sentiment. Dozens of people played tapes of Dr. King’s original call to conscience, “I Have a Dream.” His resonant voice echoed continuously through the sweaty crowds massed at the Lincoln Memorial. His words were like a challenge that none of this year’s orators could match.

Yet, chatting with marchers, I found that the older ones – people who had listened to the original dream in 1963 – were fully aware that miraculous moments could not be reenacted. Indeed, they seemed quite sophisticated about the prospects, yet hopeful.

Two middle-aged social workers from suburban Maryland were pushing through the dense crowd, trying to get a better view of the podium when I stopped them with my questions. Twenty years ago, these two women brought their small children to the mall to hear Dr. King. This time their grown-up kids came on their own.

“We’re here for the same reason we were here 20 years ago,” Fia McDowell said.

“The unfinished agenda,” her friend, Esther Delaplane, continued: “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We’re here to get some hope for ourselves.”

“And to give that message to others,” Fia added.

“The spirit among the people is the same,” said Esther. “I guess we know now that it’s harder to change things. Reagan doesn’t listen. But I hope the Congress will listen.”

“It’s been too long since something like this happened,” said Gwyland Winslow, a clerk from Nassau County, New York, a mellow young black man saying hello to anyone who passed by. “We’re just a group of people showing our concern, and that lets others know from our image that we can’t let this go on. It’s not just Ronald Reagan. It’s all those senators and congressmen and the others. These are the good people here. They just came together to say,’ Hey, America, listen to us.'”

Listen to us. That is part of what made the August march important. When 300,000 diverse citizens feel compelled to turn out on a wilting Saturday afternoon, their presence is its own testimony of hope. Yes, hope, because the march expressed a fundamentally optimistic vision of what America can become –a larger vision of ourselves than the crabby, selfish politics of the present era. Americans need to be told, once again, that this great nation, if it is true to itself, must be more than the mere sum of its self-interested parts. We can be more, the marchers declared, we still believe in that. Listen to us.

The audience hushed when the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s turn finally came. This was the electric moment people had waited for, the speech that would lift them up. “Run, Jesse, run,” they chanted. Jackson roused them with his words, but he also demonstrated, if any doubted it, that he is not another Martin Luther King. King evoked a heavenly vision of what America ought to become. Jackson, instead, talked hard politics – not about his own prospects if he were to run for president, but about how progressive candidates everywhere can win elections.

In a sense, this was entirely appropriate, since Jackson focused more precisely than any other speaker on exactly why 1983 is different from 20 years ago. In practical terms, he described the hardheaded political strategy this coalition of conscience must pursue if it hopes to become powerful again. The civil rights movement, after all, triumphed outside the electoral process. It didn’t win elections; it won mass popular support. This time, as Jesse Jackson understands, power begins with votes.

“There is a freedom train a-coming,” Jackson declared, “but you got to register to ride.”

With devastating examples, Jackson then described how the poor, especially the black poor, can renew their political power by taking full advantage of the reforms won by the movement 20 years ago – by voting. Ronald Reagan carried Alabama in 1980 by 17,000 votes, but there are 270,000 unregistered blacks in Alabama. He carried New York by 165,000 votes, but there are 900,000 unregistered blacks in New York. He carried eight Southern states in all by a total of 187,000 votes, but there are 3 million unregistered black voters in those states.

The revival begins not with picking national leaders, but with convincing the least hopeful followers that political action can make as much of a difference in the future as those brave civil-rights marches made in the past. “We must defend the poor…… We must focus on the mass of our people stuck on the bottom. If the folks on the bottom rise, all of us will rise. If the folks on the bottom rise, we will have an Equal Rights Amendment and peace and jobs. There will be a new America.”

Jackson’s political analysis is right, whether he pursues it as a declared presidential candidate or simply as a charismatic leader who speaks a language that sounds authentic to poor blacks. It always seemed clear to me that the only sure way to change the political dialogue, which is now dominated by selfish and retrograde mythology, is to change the size and shape of the electorate itself – to bring in new voters.

As a candidate himself, Jackson would be burdened by well-known liabilities. Elected black politicians, not to mention white ones, look upon him as an egomaniac who loves to stand in the glare of TV lights but skips away from the hard organizational work required to fulfill the heavy rhetoric. In Chicago, when the black candidate, Harold Washington, won the Democratic primary for mayor, Jackson’s showboating on the victory platform – “We want it all” – badly damaged the candidate by alarming white voters. At the general election, Jackson was kept out of sight. When I asked campaign aides how they accomplished this, one of them joked: “We’ve got a closet with a TV light in it. We turn on the light, and Jesse goes into the closet and starts talking.”

But there is another side to Jesse Jackson that the public almost never sees. Several years ago, when I was accompanying him on one of his swings through the South, I wandered into his motel room and found him reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Like an innocent schoolboy, he began discoursing on the Protestant theologian’s definition of Christian morality and how it relates to the black struggle. At the Democratic National Committee meeting in Detroit early this summer, Jackson surprised and charmed the cynical regulars, who were expecting to be entertained by another rhyming rap from Jesse. Instead, he ad-libbed a gritty and well-researched analysis of voter behavior and made the case for a massive national registration campaign. In short, Jesse Jackson is a serious man.

But what exactly did these marchers want? There were critics who belittled the notion that freezeniks and feminists, black preachers and labor bosses, environmentalists and gays – all with different goals – could march under the same banner. There was no agenda, they said, no list of historic legislative goals like the one promoted by the march in ’63. The issues of the Eighties are too complicated for such a movement to confront.

“We seek a New Coalition of Conscience,” the official call replied, “……based upon the concept of the ‘Beloved Community’ of Dr. King – that all humans are ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…… whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ Our coalition is not a collection of single-issue groups brought together for tactical advantage. Rather, it is a community and a movement brought together by a common dream and human values.”

The feeling of the march itself, the diversity and good will and clear-eyed perspective, all confirmed that there is nothing farfetched about its unifying theme of “community.” I was struck, most of all, by the obvious prosperity of the blacks who turned out. There were a few contingents of the very poor – welfare mothers and so forth – but mostly, the black marchers were middle-class college students and young professionals and families – the very people who are alleged to have turned their back on the ghettos they left behind. That canard was refuted by their presence on the mall.

The political agenda, for the immediate future at least, is really quite specific and uncomplicated: defeat Ronald Reagan in 1984. Reagan, of course, has no expectation of getting any black votes in ’84, but the Republican strategists are worried at another level – losing votes from that vast middle ground of decent white Americans who congratulate the country on its racial progress and wish to believe that America is still moving forward, not backward.

Further on, of course, this movement will have to produce its own economic agenda, one quite different from the “trickle down” tax-and-spending philosophy that now governs not only the Republican but also a major segment of the Democratic party. Jobs, peace and freedom are, indeed, interlocking goals, but a new economic agenda must address the deeper question that neither political party has been able to answer: How can the country restore the stable economic growth that spreads wealth among its citizens without reigniting the inflation of the 1970s?

The answer, I suspect, will be based on economic strategies that are very close to the principle of “mutuality” articulated by Dr. King. In order for anyone to benefit from our rich economy, everyone must benefit. In time, people must rediscover that this approach is not only good for the soul, it is also the only way for America, and the American economy, to survive.

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