Marches help define who we are as a people. 

An American Tradition

For good or ill, future generations will look to this spring's marches on Washington for clues to understanding us.

In the first, on April 16, labor unions and environmentalists marched on Washington to protest the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Environmentalists remained for Earth Day, April 22, to emphasize clean energy, pollution and global warming. A week later, gays and lesbians mobilized their efforts with a Millennium March on Washington. On Mother's Day, May 14, Rosie O'Donnell will lead the Million Mom March for gun control.

Marches on Washington are an old American tradition and they teach us much about our past. The August 1963 civil rights March on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr., fixed our positive impression of such demonstrations. Far surpassing previous marches' attendance, its 200,00 to 300,000 participants gathered peacefully. Its cast of celebrities, dignitaries, musicians and speakers set expectations for subsequent marches. King's "I Have A Dream" speech entered the canon of American rhetoric and Congress enacted major civil rights legislation.

But marches on Washington were at least a 70-year-old tradition by then. In the spring of 1894, Jacob S. Coxey tried to arouse the national government to act against unemployment in the midst of a recession by leading several hundred unemployed workers on a six-week trek from Ohio to Washington, D.C. He and some followers were arrested when they presented their petition for relief at the national Capitol.

On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in March 1913, the nation's first large parade of women featured 8,000 suffragists who sought to win votes for women. After a Senate investigation into his officers' failure to protect them from rowdy bystanders, the district's police chief was forced to resign.

Progressive reformers have not been the only ones to march on Washington. In August 1925, 40,000 to 60,000 Ku Klux Klansmen and women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in opposition to the United States' adherence to the World Court. It was the largest demonstration in the nation's capital before 1963.

Coxey and the suffragists were not the only marchers to face hostile receptions. In May 1932, nearly 15,000 unemployed men camped along the Anacostia River as their lobbyists tried unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to grant relief to veterans of World War I with advance payment of their veterans' bonus. When, in July, remnants of the march remained in Washington, President Herbert Hoover told the Army to disperse them. Mounted on a white charger, General Douglas MacArthur confirmed his arrogant reputation by ordering his men to attack their former comrades in arms with tear gas and riot weapons and burn their shanties.

Marches on Washington became identified with the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, threatened a march of 50,000 to 100,000 people in 1941 to protest employment discrimination in the federal government and private industry. Just a week before the march was to occur, President Franklin Roosevelt avoided possible domestic unrest during the United States' mobilization for World War II by signing an executive order barring such discrimination.

In the late 1950s, Randolph and King led three marches of 12,000 to 27,000 people for school desegregation and black voting rights. By contrast with the brilliantly successful 1963 civil rights march, the Poor People's March on Washington five years later recalled the bitter end of the bonus march. Lacking support even from most civil rights organizations, it ended in squalor, won few concessions and underscored the divisions of the late 1960s.

Dramatic demonstrations against the war in Vietnam in 1969 and 1971 doubled participation records set by the 1963 civil rights march. President Richard Nixon's Justice Department ordered the arrest of demonstrators who tried to disrupt business as usual in Washington by blocking access to the city. Some 12,000 people underwent indiscriminate arrest in the nation's largest mass jailing.

Subsequent marches on Washington reacted to the modern women's liberation movement. Critics of the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, entitling women to a legal abortion, have staged annual vigils on its anniversary. Feminists marched in July 1978 for the Equal Rights Amendment. They gathered in numbers approximating the 1963 demonstration in April 1989 and April 1992 to defend a woman's right to an abortion. In 1987 and 1993, advocates of gay and lesbian rights marched on Washington in similar numbers.

By the mid-1990s, marches on Washington seemed to change in several ways. The Million Man March of October 1995 and the Promise Keepers' march of October 1997 were, after all, male events. Breaking with tradition by making no public policy demands, they offered pledges of changed selves. A third shift was that official counts of attendance at the marches became so controversial that Congress banned National Park Police estimates of the size of the crowds.

Expect no official count of crowd numbers in the month ahead, but women are marching again and demonstrators have definite ideas about public policy. We should remember that marchers are exercising constitutional rights of free assembly, petition and speech. We should remember that our children will look to these marches and to our responses to learn more about us.

Ralph E. Luker is an independent historian in Atlanta. He writes for the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians which seeks to improve the public's understanding of current events.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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