In recent years, memorialization of the Civil Rights era from the 1950s and 1960s has taken on a new urgency for two reasons. One, the nation is approaching the 60th—and, sometimes, 70th—anniversary of key events in what scholars such as Peniel Joseph have referred to as the “heroic age” of the Civil Rights Movement. In 2024 alone we will commemorate the anniversaries of Freedom Summer, Fannie Lou Hamer’s legendary speech to the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The following year will mark an occasion to remember the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Watts Riots—both occurring in August of 1965. Finally, by the year 2026 we’ll not only mark 250 years since the Declaration of Independence, but 60 years since the clarion call of “Black Power!” reigned across the land. Many of the movement’s leaders and elders are leaving us, and times like these showcase the importance of remembering them.
A second, and equally urgent, reason for these commemorations is the political polarization blazing across the United States over issues of race, identity, and history. It is no coincidence that many on social media have hailed the resistance shown by Black Americans in Montgomery, Alabama–the site of the Bus Boycott of 1955-56–against the backdrop of attacks on “critical race theory,” now being used as a catch-all term to describe topics as disparate as gender studies or Black history.
Thus, moments such as the commemoration of the March on Washington offer Americans the opportunity to think about not just how far the nation has come since the summer of 1963, but how far is left to go.
Indeed, this is not the first time the March on Washington’s commemorative moment has served as a rallying cry for concerned Americans. Ebony magazine argued that the 1983 edition of the March, what they referred to as “March on Washington II,” was a moment when Black America and its political allies “shocked national political leaders into a reconsideration of their strategies.” The timing of the march was critical, for it came during the first term of Ronald Reagan and during a period when it appeared advances on civil rights across the nation had come to a halt. For scholar-activists such as Manning Marable, the decade of the 1980s actually began on November 5, 1979 during the “Greensboro Massacre” when neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen shot and killed five activists in Greensboro, North Carolina. This, combined with the following year’s Miami rebellion indicated to Marable that “it seemed like U.S. society was being prepared for some kind of authoritarian takeover, or perhaps a Chilean-style suspension of democratic rights and institutions.”1
The March on Washington II also came during an important moment in the push to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Denoting a critical moment in the growth of Black history—and memory—in the national consciousness, the push to make King’s birthday a holiday was an important part of the larger struggle for Black freedom in the 1980s. Scholars such as Daniel T. Fleming, Hajar Yazdiha, and many writers for Black Perspectives, have all extensively chronicled how King’s visage in public life was used (or, often, misused) for political agendas. The battle over what King represents was already underway in the 1980s. Now, in 2023, it appears to have undertaken a new, and ever more urgent, tone, as fights over the meaning, purpose, and substance of Black history rage across the United States.
This battle over what Black history means to Americans is one that must be seen through the lens of intergenerational experiences of racism and discrimination. Coverage of the 1993 March on Washington commemoration showcased this, as this statement from a 25-year old attendee named Paula Webber made clear: “A lot of people think racism is gone. Racism isn’t gone.” By 1993, the idea of a March on Washington had taken flight for a variety of groups. A larger March in April of 1993 was a rallying point for the LGBTQ movement in the United States had taken inspiration from the 1963 March. The experience of racism and discrimination for Black youths in the country, however, is one issue that makes the debate over teaching American history so integral. Without a firm understanding of the past, it may make it difficult for Americans of all races, creeds, and colors to properly understand how the nation got to this particular point in its history: one where a Black president is still a recent memory, yet fights over voting rights and other forms of racial discrimination are fresh in national, regional, and local news headlines.
This was especially noteworthy with 2013 commemorations of the March on Washington. That year was also the first year of Barack Obama’s second term as President. As such, he made mention of the many strides the nation had made on diversity in his Second Inaugural Address, invoking the work of those at “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” The grand historical irony of President Obama’s second term, however, was that it was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, the modern incarnation of Black movements for freedom and justice in the United States. A later interview between President Obama and then-Atlantic staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama legacy and the president’s stance on reparations was especially enlightening in how the rhetoric of the Obama years often clashed with political, social, and cultural realities. “I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability,” said President Obama, “to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow.”
The 2013 March on Washington included remarks from a wide array of Civil Rights Movement veterans and Obama administration officials. Yet, the March also included a harbinger of things to come for the nation, as it included a remembrance of Trayvon Martin. Reparations, civil rights, voting rights—these were integral parts of the 2013 March on Washington, echoing the calls for “a March for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963 and the push for a multi-racial movement in 1983. Now, in 2023, all of these movements for freedom continue, against a backdrop of radical backlash and reaction.
- Manning Marable. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society. Haymarket Books: Chicago, Ill., 2015 (1983), p. xxx. ↩