I thought marches were done.
Over the past 20 years, most of the marches that we’ve seen, big and small, have seemed more like stagecraft than the true reflection of a current struggle. The urgency that characterized historic civil rights marches seemed to have gone away and been replaced by careful scheduling and marketing—like last year’s march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. While it was a beautiful remembrance of a time gone by, and an important recognition of those civil rights leaders who had planned and executed one of the most important events in American history, the anniversary march wasn’t able to recapture the fierce urgency—or the uncertainty—of the first.
So I’ve been jolted to see the effective ways that marches, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience have been employed as effective tactics in Ferguson, Mo. In recent months these demonstrations have been particularly striking, a raw expression of the community’s profound discontent with things as they are. These efforts, coupled with a strong social media presence, have brought the marchers’ cause into the spotlight in a way not seen for quite some time.
They have the same spirit as some of the most compelling actions of the 20th-century civil rights movement, yet they have a new power when broadcast through the lens of today’s Internet and cable-news-driven world. Like the ongoing Moral Monday movement, led by the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP, and the organizing by the Dream Defenders in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, organizers of the Ferguson movement have revitalized a tried-and-true approach and used it to communicate, with great effect, to the nation and the world.
They’ve done it without a big national organization backing them. And while it’s clear that many have been consulted behind the scenes, the Ferguson movement is clearly organic—not taking directives from a central organization—and it might be this lack of a centralized voice that has made their marches more expressive and compelling. Instead of coming across as scripted, or handled, what these marches provide, instead, is the ideological space for citizens to express how the killing of Michael Brown and the refusal of local authorities to indict Darren Wilson is part of a larger matrix of injustices they will no longer accept. The messy spontaneity of what results has been inspiring to watch. And by coming back, day after day and week after week, they have made this struggle almost impossible to ignore.
Somewhere along the line, we began to think that marches are important only if they are big. We all grew up learning about or harking back to our memories of the 1963 March on Washington. The images we recall of that day are of the many thousands who came from all over the country to march and gather at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; we remember the preprinted signs, the marchers dangling their feet in the reflective pool, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the podium. But what many have forgotten is that the people who gathered that August day were drawn from local movements around the country. And when they left Washington, D.C., for their homes, they returned to carry on the struggle in their own communities.
Somehow, we’ve remembered the grandeur and elegance of a well-organized peaceful gathering, and we’ve forgotten the hard work and daily grind of organizing and the passionate pursuit of justice that undergirded it. Effectively contesting the indignities of segregation, disfranchisement and racial violence was a day-to-day struggle often rendered invisible by the grand sweeping narratives of civil rights.
Which is part of what makes today’s protests all the more encouraging. By renewing a protest tradition, the Ferguson movement reminds us that the challenges of today won’t be resolved quickly or easily. Doing so will require coming back, again and again, and organizing for the long haul—fundamentally challenging the narratives that the wider society holds about the value of black life.
Ferguson reminds us that “we who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.”
Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.