The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held 53 years ago on August 28, 1963. It was on that Wednesday, 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, that nearly 250,000 people converged on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to demand civil and economic rights for African-Americans in the United States. The March on Washington, as it came to be known, marked an important turn in the fight for Civil Rights because of the enormous impact it had on national legislation and public opinion. Simply put, it proved the power of mass organizing.
The March on Washington eventually resulted in the signing of Civil Rights Act, which was built off of a continuous momentum that allowed for the formation of broad coalitions between labor, civil rights, faith-based and student groups. The accomplishments of the 1950s and 1960s cannot be forgotten or lessened — they are cornerstone victories in American history. The wave of sit-ins in the 1960s brought the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The founding of the SNCC propelled the civil rights movement into a new era that drew, fostered and trained a generation of radicals who led the dismantling of racist Jim Crow laws. Without the organized direct action of the SNCC, the world wouldn’t have witnessed the violent and ugly face of voter repression, segregation and overall disregard for Black lives in this country that was demonstrated by the Freedom Rides and the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. It was this type of direct action that has informed the current resistance movements’ occurring across the country today.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, it is clear that the intensifying repression being directed first at Black communities and then at working-class communities is a direct result of the conscious policy decisions made by powerful interests. The reality is that many urban Black communities are experiencing severe economic and social deprivation that cannot be understood without looking at the cause-and-effect relationship between these conditions – the Capitalist system and processes like “free trade.”
Many of the gains made during the Civil Rights Era were diminished as a result of neoliberal economic policies. The ruling class’ response to the last major crisis in Capitalism was to slash social welfare, privatize and eliminate public services, rewrite legislation to favor corporations, and attack unions – thus, further cementing the need for coalitions between racial and economic justice movements.
The visible proof of these claims can be seen with the deindustrialization and the flight of capital in urban cores. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Oakland, and affiliated cities like Flint, Michigan, South Bend and Gary, Indiana, and East St. Louis, Illinois – where Black communities are concentrated – these cities tell the story of the failure of neoliberal capitalism to provide long-term quality employment for workers which has increased the gap between the rich and poor. After the 2008 economic crisis, the economic challenges that faced black people in this country became even more devastating.
The irony here is that neoliberalism was started under the banner of “small government” yet, while the state made slashes to social programs it massively expanded its policing and prison system – a system that has disproportionately ensnared people of color and poor whites. Not only were economic opportunities limited with the exportation of jobs under NAFTA and other neoliberal policies but Black people began to be incarcerated at alarming rates.
The Black Lives Matter organizers, whom are mostly young Black queer women, have intentionally unraveled the notion of a post-racial America and exposed the pervasive patterns of racism in the U.S. They have also revealed the limitations of the Democratic Party while highlighting the traditional liberal establishment’s inability to respond to the economic and social crises that we are currently experiencing. And although there can be no denial that the Black Lives Matter movement is propelled by the history of the civil rights movement they have their own distinct style that is explicitly more progressive than the non-violent civil rights movements of the past.
The most recent demonstration of this was at the Netroots Nation convening this past July, where Black Lives Matter protestors directly confronted progressive Presidential candidates about what they will do to address the needs of Black people in this country. Specifically, these protestors pushed Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to think about what they will do to not just reform the criminal justice system, but to also dismantle racial injustice in the United States. Shortly after the confrontation at Netroots, both the Sanders and O’Malley campaigns had responses to the protestors that included the acknowledgement that Black Lives, in fact, Matter. That is the power of direct action.
What we can learn from both the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Civil Rights Movement is first, that the what ever movement you are trying to built, it must be situated in the broader struggle for social justice. Without building coalitions and partnerships with other struggles we will get nowhere. As we, continue with any type of movement building with our communities, we will also need to maintain a deeper analysis of how your movement can partner with Black Lives Matter. Worldwide those with darker skin tones have bared the burden of oppression for far to long to not build solidarity to try to advance racial justice in the U.S. In building a larger organized movement,the next step is to move forward a broader agenda of economic, racial, and social justice. By doing this, we further our understanding of how each struggle and movement is linked. We become better advocates for our communities and stronger coalition partners – more equipped to fight for our cause.
Second is the importance of direct action. Speaking truth to power can be difficult but it is necessary. We have a responsibility to keep those that create these policies accountable for the decisions that they make on behalf of our communities. We need to be asking questions of our elected leaders even if it makes them uncomfortable.
Learning from justice movements of the past will help us shape our future and continue to be politically engaged moving forward. If we are able to situate each current struggle in the broad historical context we will be able to create strategy that is building off momentum of the past. We have the power to change this and move forward an agenda of true equality and justice for all by building coalitions and confronting power head on.