Review: ‘Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition’

Dear Coalition Friends:

Please take a moment to read below Jonathan Yardley’s review of Lucy Barber’s new book, Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition (University of California Press, just released.) [See:]

Ms. Barber has been getting some attention lately because of the recent peace/anti-war protests in Washington. Her book is of particular value to the Coalition. It provides the history of traditions now being threatened by security proposals, the WWII Memorial, and other projects that would impede public uses of the Mall.

Lucy Barber will be in Washington in early March and will be speaking and signing at Politics and Prose bookstore on March 11. We’re hoping to arrange for additional public venues.

Her chapters include the following historic marches (and non-marches):

  • Coxey’s Army, 1894
  • Woman Suffrage, 1913
  • Veterans’ Bonus March of 1932
  • Negro March on Washington and Its Cancellation, 1941
  • March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
  • “Spring Offensive” of 1971

Democracy’s Foot Soldiers: A History of Protest Marches

Reviewed By Jonathan Yardley

Marching on Washington has become what Lucy G. Barber calls “an intrinsic part of American political culture,” so much so that it’s easy to imagine it’s a right of citizenship specifically guaranteed somewhere in the Constitution. Everybody does it, and does it all the time. At times it seems the east end of the Mall is in a permanent state of occupation, by everyone from home-grown zealots of every imaginable persuasion to visitors from abroad, including the Falun Gong.

It’s equally easy to imagine that it’s been thus forever

  • that pro- and anti-slavery organizations marched through the federal city in the 1850s or that capital and labor took their separate stands there in the Gilded Age
  • but that is far from the case. The first significant popular protest didn’t come to the capital until 1894, when Jacob Coxey led what came to be known as Coxey’s Army in the hope
  • entirely futile, as it turned out
  • of persuading Congress “to end permanently the suffering of unemployed workers by building modern roads throughout the United States and funding new community facilities with federally subsidized bonds.” And it was not until seven decades later that the ritual became fully institutionalized with the great civil rights march of 1963 that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Between Coxey and King were various other protest marches, most more noteworthy for the controversies they aroused than for any specific federal actions they brought about, but all contributed to what Barber calls “a collective ‘history’ of protest in Washington.” The most notable of these were the march by suffragists in 1913, the “Bonus March” by World War I veterans in 1932 and the “Negro March on Washington” that was canceled at the eleventh hour in 1941. By the time of this last, the tradition had begun to take shape:

“Negro March organizers and observers repeatedly drew attention to the precedents established by Coxey’s Army and the Bonus March. Journalists, politicians, and activists were aware that many groups during the 1930s had imitated the Bonus marchers and their expedition to Washington. From pacifists to war hawks, anti-New Dealers to disgruntled relief workers, angry housewives to fearful Jewish leaders, all these groups brought their demands to the streets of Washington.”

All of which seems entirely commonplace to us now, but Barber persuasively argues that before the protest march became institutionalized, basic notions about the nature of the capital and its relationship to the rest of the nation had to be reexamined and revised. The original assumption, at least on the part of the governing elite, was that Washington was meant to be apart from and above the hullabaloo of the crowd, a place to which the nation’s leaders could repair to weigh the course of government undisturbed by the voices of the people themselves. The people had the right to speak freely, but the claim asserted by Coxey

  • “that ordinary Americans had a right to voice their demands in the capital,” that this was “within the rights and indeed responsibilities of American citizens”
  • was, to many in government, law enforcement and the press, “deeply suspect.”

In chapters devoted to each of the five marches already mentioned, as well as a sixth about three protests against the Vietnam War in the spring of 1971, Barber describes the evolution of the march on Washington from the radical fringe to the mainstream center. A former teacher of history who now works for the California State Archives in Sacramento, she is not exactly the most scintillating prose stylist on the planet, but the evidence she has assembled is interesting, and for the most part her arguments are convincing.

Today as throughout the history of marches on Washington, Barber writes (in an all too typical example of her clunky prose), “many participants . . . still seek recognition as United States citizens

  • a status that continues to embrace both practical privileges and symbolic affirmation.” Coxey’s rather tatterdemalion army was mocked and denigrated by the establishment as “tramps,” but the marchers insisted that in fact they were citizens, “Americans who had an obligation to go to the capital if that was what it took to improve the country.” The suffragists made the same claim, as did the civil rights activists of 1941 and 1963 and the antiwar marchers of 1971.

In each instance, these were people who had been pushed to the margins by the establishment yet who insisted that, as citizens, they had just as much right as the powerful to have their grievances heard and their demands considered. For Coxey to make this claim was radical not merely because it defied the received wisdom that Washington should be apart from the mob, but also because it insisted that the federal government must address these issues, not the states or localities. However marginal Coxey may have seemed at the time, it is obvious in retrospect that he played at least a small role in the process by which, over the ensuing half-century, the federal government became the nation’s dominant institution.

Of the several marches that Barber analyzes, in many ways the most interesting was the one that never took place. In 1941, as the country moved reluctantly but inevitably toward World War II, “employment opportunities for most Americans increased with defense preparations and sales of materials to Allied countries, [but] blacks were excluded from many positions in industry, and they were segregated and given secondary status in the military.” Under one of the greatest of American labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a massive black protest was planned for July 1. It was to end at the Lincoln Memorial, because this “was an effective way of contrasting Lincoln’s exalted position as the ‘freer of the slaves’ to the continuing problems of African Americans.”

Franklin Roosevelt met with Randolph and others, but complained that the marchers “might encourage everybody to protest in Washington,” that “they were an inappropriate use of pressure,” and that there was “potential for violence.” The truth was that he dreaded “the image of black Americans exposing the racial inequality in the United States to a warring and watching world.” Randolph et al. stood their ground, and finally FDR gave in. He signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in military contracting, “one of the only tangible changes in federal policy directly attributable to any march on Washington.”

By contrast with the march that never happened, the march of 1963 was carried off with the active cooperation of John F. Kennedy, who “was aware of the international scrutiny of white supremacy and hopeful that a peaceful march would reflect well on his administration.” The march was enormously important in uniting much of the country behind the broad goals of the civil rights movement, but it took the assassination of Kennedy and tough lobbying by Lyndon Johnson to translate the demands of the marchers into federal legislation. By contrast, the antiwar marches of 1971

  • especially the rowdy “Mayday” protest of early May
  • encouraged the Nixon administration to dig in its heels on Vietnam, and did little to sway public sentiment against the war; indeed, it may have had precisely the opposite effect among much of the populace.

In the intervening three decades, marching on Washington has become “business as usual,” not least because federal and D.C. authorities have learned how to control and contain marches, to the point that “the conventionality, familiarity, and predictability of marches have encouraged journalists to treat marches as unremarkable events, to pay less attention to their political demands, and to give them minimal coverage.” Now, Barber suggests, “the most effective use of the march on Washington has arguably become personal affirmation and movement building,” as suggested by the Million Man March of 1995 and the Million Family March of 2000. But if the news media see these occasions as “unremarkable,” that says more about the press than it does about the occasions.


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