Taking our struggles to Washington

August 20, 2013

Elizabeth Schulte, Laura Lising and Ann Coleman report on local organizing for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

BY AUGUST 1963, brave civil rights struggles across the U.S. South had thrust the ugly face of Jim Crow segregation--symbolized by the scenes of police attacking Black children with German shepherds and high-pressure fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala.--into the national consciousness.

For many participants, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represented a coming together of the different battles for civil rights, as well as many people inspired by those struggles. The unexpected and unprecedented turnout of some 250,000 people showed the reach of the movement.

On the 50th anniversary of the famous march where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, the situation is different, of course. We aren't witnessing the crest of a mass movement. In fact, many of the gains of the civil rights struggles of half a century ago, like legalized desegregation in public schools and housing, are being eroded. And thanks to the popularity of the idea that we are living in a "post-racial society"--as evidenced by the fact that an African American occupies the White House--opponents of racism often find themselves struggling to push the conditions that Black America endures into the national spotlight.

Marching against racial profiling and the murder of Trayvon Martin in Houston
Marching against racial profiling and the murder of Trayvon Martin in Houston (Ed Uthman)

But the murder of Trayvon Martin last year gave a clear picture of racism in "post-racial" America--and the outpouring of anger after his murderer George Zimmerman was acquitted in July showed the potential for protest, even if they were relatively short-lived. As a result, what might have been mostly a commemoration of the 1963 march 50 years on has taken on a new spirit and urgency.

At least some people will come to Washington this year to speak out about the often localized civil rights issues of today that they have been organizing around--against stop-and-frisk and racial profiling, against police violence and the New Jim Crow, for jobs and union rights, for housing and education justice, against voter ID laws and disenfranchisement, against the relentless austerity agenda.

The August 24 march represents the first time in many years that established civil rights organizations like the NAACP and National Action Network (NAN) have called for a national mobilization and put real resources behind it. Unions have taken up the call--around 15 unions have endorsed officially, including the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME and the United Auto Workers.

The weight of established liberal organizations in the official apparatus of the demonstration means that some of burning issues on marchers' minds will be addressed from the speakers' podium, but others will not. After all, many march organizers like Rev. Al Sharpton of NAN have so far failed to criticize the Obama administration, despite how little it has delivered for Black America.

But the same was true of the 1963 March on Washington, at least as radicals of the day, like Malcolm X, viewed it. Yet the 1963 demonstration is remembered not only for the famous words spoken from the front of the demonstration, but for the spirit and determination of the demonstrators.

There's no way to tell how many people will attend this year, but reports from around the country indicate the march is inspiring more people to get on the bus than anyone expected a few months ago. In some cities, organizers say spaces on buses are selling out fast.

Lauren Byers of the University of Florida chapter of the Dream Defenders, a group of antiracist youths who occupied the Florida Capitol for a month after Zimmerman's acquittal, said, "We are named after that historic speech by Dr. King, and we understand that the dream he died trying to accomplish has yet to flourish into reality."

IN NEW York City, buses are filling up fast. The United Federation of Teachers booked some 25 buses, and the seats were quickly taken.

Many longtime criminal justice activists are traveling as a group from New York and marching together with the formerly incarcerated and other longtime activists. Anti-criminal justice system activist and socialist Lee Wengraf said she was excited about how march organizing is drawing together people around issues of solitary confinement, conditions at the prison on Rikers Island, police brutality and other similar issues.

Constance Malcolm is one of them. She's the mother of Ramarley Graham, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by New York City police in his home. Since her son's murder, Constance and her family have fought for justice for their son, along with the families of other victims of police violence. Last week, a grand jury refused to re-indict the police officer who killed Ramarley.

Constance explained the importance of attending this march:

We want to go to Washington because this is where Eric Holder, the head of Justice Department, is. We want him to take up Ramarley's case--not just look into it, but take up this case. We want them to know who Ramarley is in Washington. The same way that Trayvon Martin became a household name, we need them to know that Ramarley was here. It was a police officer who murdered Ramarley, and Zimmerman was a wannabe police officer.

The everyday racism of the NYPD were in the national spotlight last week when a federal judge ruled in Floyd et al v. the City of New York that the department's stop-and-frisk policy violated the constitutional rights of its hundreds of thousands of victims each year. The cracks in the criminal justice system are showing.

Joseph "Jazz" Hayden of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow in New York City explains that if activists are going to win this fight, we're going to have to push forward our own demands:

The people initiating this march, I don't know that we should be restricted to their agenda. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were products of mass demonstrations. The movement brought into question U.S. foreign policy around the globe--whether it was about democracy and fairness and human rights.

With that in mind, I looked at the Floyd decision that was just rendered in New York against stop-and-frisk and the announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that he wants to reform federal sentencing laws and mandatory minimums. I think the Obama administration is aware of this mass population of predominately people of color descending on Washington. I think that has our first Black president concerned.

I think that these are incremental reforms--giving the appearance of moving in the right direction and finally recognizing the issues that impact poor people of color, which he has ignore totally throughout his administration. This march should be done for the purpose of holding their feet to the fire. We need to ask why haven't they addressed the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S., of growing poverty, lack of affordable housing.

Moreover, said Hayden, the march is an opportunity to make connections toward building a national movement. "We saw the grassroots response to the Trayvon Martin decision, which led to demonstrations in over 100 cities across the country. Imagine if we were organized in 100 cities across the country. Anytime we decided we wanted to put something on the national agenda, we could put it out there instantly."

Yusef Salaam of the Central Park Five--innocent Black youth who were framed for a high-profile rape and assault in 1989--spoke to the demands of the original march that remain unmet:

I think we can be sure that we are still in need of Jobs and Freedom, which are inclusive of our civil and economic rights. The progress we need isn't satisfied by piecemeal gains for a few, but requires advancement for all. Marching lets the world know we are still at odds with a system that refuses to allow for this gain to take place.

Enough is enough! I want a brighter future for us and future generations, as I'm sure our predecessors wanted for us. As a member of the Central Park Five, I know all too well what it means to wear skin of a darker hue in a system that sees it as beneath them and as a tool of exploitation. Enough is enough!

IN CHICAGO, activists organizing to attend the march are drawing the connection between the 1963 march's demand for "Jobs and Freedom" with the unfinished fight for economic and racial justice today. At a meeting at the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, activists invited attendees to join their Chicago Labor Freedom Riders caravan.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Recording Secretary Michael Brunson began the meeting by talking about the real legacy of the civil rights movement:

It was not until I did studying on my own that I learned how deeply concerned Martin Luther King was with the issue of labor. He not only spoke about it, but you must never forget that he lost his life when he went down to Memphis to stand with sanitation workers. So like the memory of the march, the memory of Martin Luther King himself has been condensed, circumscribed and sanitized.

Dr. Timuel Black, a 94-year-old veteran Chicago teacher and labor activist, described his own education as an activist:

Watching my father and his peers as they began to participate in union activities of United Steel Workers and later the United Packinghouse workers, I began to learn that in unity, there is strength...We began to organize...and we could tell the people that controlled the jobs: If you don't hire us at a decent wage, we're going to put you out of business.

Black attended the March on Washington in 1963, and when he got back, he helped organize a successful boycott movement in the Chicago Public Schools to demand equal education for Black children.

Brandon Johnson of the CTU's Black Caucus explained how the gains in the fight for public education in the 1960s are being undermined today:

This attack on public education is very much an attack on Black labor. Public education and public-sector jobs are overwhelmingly held by Blacks, women in particular. So these conversations about privatization of public education are very much a threat to the working class, to middle-class Black families...

We have to make sure that the conversation about public education, housing, transportation and so on isn't separated from racial, social and economic justice.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that guts the 1965 Voting Rights Act, seven Southern states have passed or implemented new restrictions that target people of color. This was very much on the mind of Martese Chism, a registered nurse at Cook County Hospital and member of National Nurses United.

Chism told the story of how her great grandmother Birdia, along with fellow Charleston, Miss., Freedom Riders, traveled to Jackson, Miss., in 1965 to give testimony at a voting rights hearing, despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. "On the way back home, just outside of Greenwood, Miss., their car was forced off the road," she said. The women were removed from the car, marched to the edge of the wood and killed, and their bodies were mutilated. As Chism said:

Fifty years later, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that Birdia and Miss Hamlet testified in support of has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court...Striking down the 1965 Voting Rights Act is like striking down hypertension medicine for a hypertension patient...We are riding for my great grandmother Birdia, for the schoolteacher Miss Hamlet...and for Main Street. Get on the bus.

IN BOSTON, back in 1963, organizers were only able to provide one bus to go to the March on Washington, and most people who wanted to go had to find their own way there. This year, the Boston branch of the NAACP is organizing four buses for the march.

At a meeting in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood on August 15, victims of police violence spoke about why the August 24 march was an opportunity for individual campaigns against police violence, led mostly by family members, to connect with other organizations and individuals to lay the basis for future organizing efforts.

Wayne Dozier is the grandfather of DJ Henry, a 20-year-old Pace University student who was shot through the windshield of his car by a Mount Pleasant, N.Y., officer in 2010. Through the family's organizing efforts, it has been revealed that police conspired to lie about what happened the night Henry was killed.

After sharing the story of his grandson, Dozier pointed to a pin for Ramarley Graham on his shirt. He wears the pin to remind him that our struggles are connected, and that judges and courts from Boston to California support police violence. "March on Washington with a new cause and sense of purpose," he said. "We need to question why we have more Black men in prison today than we had slaves in 1850."

In May, Anwar Luckman was riding his bike when Brookline police surrounded him, causing him to crash, and then pepper sprayed and handcuffed him. Now, Anwar is facing up to $700 in fines or two-and-a-half years of prison. "It has to be a collective effort," Anwar said. "We need different shades and shapes of people so we can't be overlooked."

Other attendees at the 75-person meeting included Carla Sheffield, mother of Bo (Burrell) Ramsey-White, a 26-year-old who was murdered by Boston police in August 2012, as well as mothers from Legacy Lives On, a nonprofit for family members who have lost loved ones to homicide or street violence.

IN WASHINGTON, D.C., networks of activists have come together over issues related to criminal justice and are planning a special feeder march for the August 24 demonstration.

The activists first connected at an event celebrating the abolition of the death penalty in Maryland in May, which brought together former death row prisoners, antiracist activists, death row lawyers and people who have been part of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other criminal justice activism.

Afterward, a handful of people started meeting to discuss launching a new campaign, building on the changed political climate following the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia in 2011 and the popularity of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.

When George Zimmerman was acquitted in July, activists organized rallies, meetings and speak-outs. When a report was released revealing rampant racial profiling in D.C., activists organized a press conference linking the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin and an end to racial profiling by police. There, they called for a rally and march on the morning of August 24, which would then link up with the 50th Anniversary march.

Momentum for the feeder rally and march has been building, say organizers, with a packed forum on August 15 where community members spoke out about their treatment at the hands of the D.C. police. TeOnna Ross, who was distributing flyers the weekend before the rally, said:

As people of color, we know we can't trust the police, and we teach our children to watch out for them. But the statistics in the report made the issues come to light in a new way. The report and the forum and the rally are all ways to pull people into this struggle against racial profiling.

ON THE West Coast, activists are organizing their own actions on August 24 to coincide with the March on Washington.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, working-class Blacks, Latinos and Asians are being pushed out of the city centers and into suburban ghettos. Over the last 30 years, the Black population of San Francisco has fallen from 14 percent of the population to 4 percent.

Between 2008 and 2012 alone, 1,465 homes in one of the last remaining Black neighborhoods, the Bayview neighborhood, faced foreclosure--84 percent of which have been conducted illegally. As gentrification spreads across the Bay, the Black population in Oakland has dropped by a quarter over the past decade.

In the face of the housing crisis, the city of Oakland has increased its police department budget by $90 million since 2001. The priorities are clear, and the plight of Black and working-class people have been once again put off to the side.

In response, members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions and Bay Area Black Worker Center have organized a solidarity action for August 24 in Mosswood Park, a historic meeting place for the Black Panthers.

Organizing efforts have been drawing together different pockets of anti-racist forces. For example, the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP has voted to endorse the August 24 action. The organizing has also incorporated younger community members, such as students from the University of California-Berkeley Black Student Union.

Local activists hope that efforts like these that will lead to future struggle and lay the ground for an ongoing fight against racism.

Trenton Brooks and Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.

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