Let me begin by acknowledging that for many people who attended today’s 50th anniversary March on Washington commemoration the very act of being in attendance was significant and has personal meaning. There is value in being part of something bigger than you so I have to believe that standing amongst the tens of thousands of marchers was empowering for many of those gathered on the Mall. I certainly felt that way at the 20th anniversary commemoration in 1983 and several years earlier when Stevie Wonder led a march calling for a national holiday to honor the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What struck me watching the webcast today was the event’s staging and seeming diminishment of the very history that the 50th anniversary gathering supposedly was being held to commemorate. It reminded me of something my mentor, friend and NYU professor the late Dr. Walter Stafford once articulated to me in one of our lengthy conversations. He warned that we were living in an ahistorical moment, when history was being discounted and replaced by an anti-intellectualism that is being masqueraded as truth. Dr. Stafford described it as a “conspiracy against memory.” It is what I saw on display on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial today.
How can you celebrate a historic event but diminish those who were part of that history? Hearing Julian Bond’s remarks cut off by music, and then Rev. Jesse Jackson receiving the same treatment was a sad commentary on our disrespect for our own history. Two individuals who were actually part of the civil rights movement, close to Dr. King and leaders in their own right were treated as if they were bad acts on the stage of the Apollo Theater on Amateur Night. How can you recognize history if you don’t recognize history? Rep. John Lewis, another foot soldier of the movement, fared little better and two icons of that era, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. Joseph Lowery were treated as footnotes; almost afterthoughts as the program came to a close. Just as telling was watching NAACP CEO Ben Jealous rush through his remarks, painfully aware that at any minute his voice would be drowned out by the music of the oratory henchman.
We seem to now want our advocacy on the quick. If we can’t get the message in three minutes or less, we simply bring down the curtain. For a moment I thought I was watching the Academy Awards when award winners overrun their time. With this approach, if he were alive and present, Dr. King would probably only had time to say "I have a dream but I only have 2 minutes left to tell you about it." This is microwave advocacy – you better make your point quickly, unless of course, you are an elected official playing an insiders’ game.
Just as worse was the shameless politicking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. While the icons of the civil rights movement were reduced to bit players, politicians were given free reign for shameless self-promotion. First up was Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, a candidate for United States Senate in New Jersey, whose passionate rhetoric pales against the misery most residents of his city are experiencing. Then Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) did their best to authenticate their civil rights credentials. We even were treated to Attorney General Eric Holder publicly embracing the legacy of the 1963 march and tying his current work to that narrative. While civil rights icons were literally cut off at the microphone, politicians and an Obama administration official were under no such pressure. It made a mockery of the day as it turned what should have been a respectful remembrance into a Democratic Party pep rally. In 1963 notice was served on both political parties and a Democratic presidential administration that was watching nervously as the civil rights leadership issued a call to action.
What made the 1963 March on Washington a success and memorable was the discipline of its collective leadership and the clarity of its message. Though Dr. King’s speech is most remembered from that day, it was just one from a platform that was shared equally. The leadership or so-called “Big Six” of the civil rights era – Dr. King, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and John Lewis – might have disagreed on tactics and differed in style but on August 28, 1963 they put differences aside to show America the collective will and strength, and focus, of the African-American community. Yesterday’s commemoration was clearly a National Action Network event, and Rev. Sharpton was central in its staging, but it missed the mark in replicating the essence of the march of 50 years ago and came off as the civil rights equivalent of Beatlemania. Yes, theatrical John, Paul, Ringo and George look like the boys from Liverpool but “I Want to Hold Your Hand” just does not sound the same as the real thing.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.