This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
Marches, protests and demonstrations, on the street or now online, are how the United States talks to itself. And, to the benefit of the nation, we are doing a lot of talking these days.
Propelled and protected by the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and petition, we have taken to the streets today and in the past to call the country to consider national challenges and solve national inequities, to press for change or to voice opposition to policies, plans and practices.
Our next national moment: Friday, Aug. 28, the planned commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It could not come at a more appropriate time.
If 2020 is to be remembered for more than the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be as a year in which our fellow citizens — and, very often, those among us who see themselves as outside the majority in one way or another — demanded to be heard in matters of freedom and social justice and, even more, demanded more loudly than ever to see positive change as a result.
The planned commemorations will include Rep. John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the ’63 event and all but certain to be the patron-in-absentia for the event and others now planned:
- The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), in collaboration with several other sponsors, plans a march with as many as 100,000 participants and tents on or near the National Mall and other events, according to permit information made public in June. Officially, it’s the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march, recognizing the death of George Floyd.
- The NAACP plans a Virtual March on Washington, streamed across key social media platforms and television networks starting Thursday evening, Aug. 27 and concluding the next evening. At midday Friday, Martin Luther King III and representatives of the families of Black people who have died at the hands of police, will march online, bolstered by an actual march in Washington, D.C.
The marches, however they mesh, will be about more than memories. Some will be demonstrating that day against continuing police brutality targeting Black citizens or other people of color. Others will press for major reforms in policing and funding for police overall, and for sentencing and prison reform.
Consider for a moment the lasting impact of the critical moment of the 1963 march, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, with words that have resounded through the years.
King’s speech, some 10 minutes longer than the six minutes he was allotted, didn’t include its memorable title until gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, recalling earlier King speeches as she stood behind him at the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, said to him, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream!”
Setting aside his prepared remarks, King told an estimated 150,000 at the memorial and nearby Reflecting Pool that “ … even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream … that … we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
It may not be a focus of this year’s commemorations, but the march 57 years ago was rooted in a similar event planned but not held more than two decades earlier. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor union, called for a march on Washington, D.C., to protest exclusion of Black workers from defense industry jobs. In return for cancelling that event, Randolph gained an executive order issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt forming the Fair Employment Practices Commission to investigate racial discrimination in the national defense industry.
Lest we forget, commemorations around the 1963 march likely won’t be the only calls for a “redress of grievances” on that day. Ongoing national protests include groups opposing each other in public over COVID-19-related issues — back-to-school plans, government orders to wear face coverings in public, the renewal of limits on store hours or openings, restrictions on worship services and social public gatherings, even the very nature and extent of the pandemic itself.
The breadth of current public outcries may be surprising, but the depth of emotion behind them shouldn’t be — protest is backed into the nation’s civic DNA: From pre-revolutionary times, when colonials took to cobblestone streets to protest taxes and British rule, to rallies and marches by pro- and anti-slavery advocates in the early- to mid-1800s; from anti-draft demonstrations during the Civil War to a decade of anti-war rallies during the Vietnam War; from suffragette marches in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the ERA battles of the 1970s; from marches that led to a Prohibition amendment in 1920 to marches that led to its repeal in 1933; from white-robed Ku Klux Klan demonstrations across the nation peaking in the 1920s to the civil rights movement peaking in the 1960s; to the LGBTQ movement, from Stonewall in 1969 to recent demonstrations over marriage laws and employment equality.
“We Protest” may well stand next to “In God We Trust” as a national motto. Certainly, the founders saw those core freedoms of speech, assembly and petition as central to keeping the nation safe from the “tyranny of the majority,” where minority voices and calls for change were stifled before having any real chance to produce reforms or form a new majority, seen all-too often in the European nations of their time.
There’s no guarantee under the First Amendment that when America talks to itself, Americans will listen. But our history is marked by those moments when as a nation we do hear, sometimes belatedly, what protesters, demonstrators and marchers are saying. And we are a fairer, more honest, more just country as a result.
As King said in his last public speech in 1968, nearly five years after the March on Washington: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
March on, citizens, on Aug. 28 and the days after. Use your freedoms.
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.