Who's Coming to the March on Washington?

Protesters in favor of the Voting Rights Act at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Protesters in favor of the Voting Rights Act at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(The Root) — With just 11 days left on the calendar before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Americans are busy readying themselves to converge on the nation's capital.


Kim Moore, 28, is a consultant who lives in the San Diego area. She said she's reached a phase in her life where she's ready to move beyond "talking and the marching." She wants to turn to direct and strategic action that will force some of the changes she feels are critical to the country's social and economic health.

At the top of Moore's list of concerns: the sky-high 13 percent black unemployment rate, policies such as Florida's "Stand your ground" and New York's stop and frisk and the litany of voting changes in states such as North Carolina that imperil the ability of people of color to shape the nation's laws.

"There are several reasons I wanted to be sure that I was at the March on Washington," said Moore. She added that unfair school discipline practices that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline are also high on her list of issues she's interested in solving. "But the main reason, the primary reason, is really the state of black America today."

In the decades since the August 1963 day that hundreds of thousands of men and women gathered on the National Mall and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. offer an extemporaneous but elegant speech that would establish the civil rights struggle in the firmament of righteous American struggles, racial progress has ebbed and flowed. This month — a point in time when many people planning to attend say the country has receded to familiar and disturbingly unjust terrain — some will come to Washington, D.C., with plans to do nothing more than celebrate and commemorate the events of August 1963. But many will arrive with hopes of reinvigorating a movement.

Moore, for instance, will fly to D.C. several days before the Aug. 28 anniversary of the original march. She will divide her time among as many events, speeches, panel discussions and gatherings of activists as possible. She hasn't left California yet but admits to already feeling pulled in a number of directions and unsure when she will sleep.

Taking on a Conservative Legislative Force

One of the central protest activities that marchers will attend is a rally at the D.C. offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the think tank and lobbying organization that is behind some of the most conservative public policies of the last decade. Activists across the country have discussed their plans over Twitter in the weeks and months leading up to the march.


Indeed, ALEC counts some of the nation's largest corporations among its current and former members. The organization encouraged its members to draft so-called model legislation to create what it says are conditions advantageous to its members, then lobby state legislators around the country to introduce the bills and move them toward becoming actual state policy. ALEC was the driving force behind the spread of Florida-style "Stand your ground" legislation to nearly three dozen states and the proliferation of voter-ID laws expected to make it difficult, if not impossible, for hundreds of thousands of Americans to vote.

 "I am ready for direct action," Moore said. "I want to put ALEC and the corporations behind it on notice that they have to stop advancing the interests of the rich white men who run corporations to the exclusion of everyone else, or prepare to pay the consequences. We are going to put them on blast."


Moore is part of a group considering a boycott of ALEC members' stores and products.

Sharpton: A Familiar Voice

The work that Moore describes is just the sort of activity that the Rev. Al Sharpton wants to see take over Washington, D.C., in the coming days. Sharpton — a vocal and, in some circles, maligned civil rights activist and television and radio host — is also the head of the National Action Network, an organization of like-minded social-justice workers and volunteers across the country.


"It's my hope that when we stream into Washington, this would be more than a commemoration," Sharpton said, "that what we will see is a continuation."

The architects of the 1963 March on Washington drew what was then the largest-ever protest crowd to the nation's capital as a physical demonstration of just how serious and committed some Americans were to making equality and justice a real and tangible part of everyone's lives. The march's organizers had identified a 10-point list (pdf) of demands.


Some of those demands remain unmet. Others, such as the Voting Rights Act, have been rolled back this year.

NAN has marshaled a fleet of 1,000 buses that will carry activists and those who just want to observe the action from cities around the country to D.C. in the days before the official march anniversary, Sharpton said. The organization saw a burst of interest in seats on its 50- and 55-person buses after the Supreme Court's June decision to invalidate a key provision of the VRA, he said. Then, after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, interest in NAN's seats exploded, Sharpton said.


Sharpton's organization, along with at least two of King's children, is planning a series of events, marches and protests in the days leading up to the an Aug. 28 March on Washington commemorative program on the National Mall, where President Barack Obama and others are scheduled to speak. 

A NAN rally and march, scheduled for Aug. 24, will also feature members of Trayvon Martin's family and the family of Emmett Till.


"Almost 60 years ago, Emmett Till was the thing that shook black America," Sharpton said. "Today it's the death of Trayvon Martin and the justice system's response that has shaken so many of us to our core."

Sharpton is an outspoken advocate for civil rights who, since the 1990s, has been one of the more readily identifiable and consistent high-volume national voices when racially charged incidents such as Trayvon's shooting death have occurred. So he has an answer ready when asked about criticisms that he and NAN are siphoning attention and people away from other events or are too cozy with government officials to hold the Obama administration accountable for its failures.


"Listen, the cynics are always going to talk. What they are not about is organizing and doing," said Sharpton. "You know, they said the same things about the first march and the people who organized it."

A Voice From the Grassroots

A few states away from Sharpton's base in New York, Glenn Cassis, 61, is deacon at the politically active Union Baptist Church in Hartford, Conn., and executive director of the state's African-American Affairs Commission. The commission works to create opportunities for cultural exchange and advises the Legislature about the impact of policy proposals on Connecticut's African-American population.


This week Cassis has also been the voice on the other end of a telephone line set up for Hartford-area residents who want to join a caravan of buses headed to Washington, D.C., a few days before the Aug. 28 anniversary. The seats on one bus have already been claimed. A second is filling fast.

The group will remain in Washington for almost a week, with each individual free to attend or not attend events, protests, marches, rallies and commemorations as they please, said Cassis.


For Cassis, there is a range of animating issues that will draw him to Washington, D.C. His list of chief concerns includes the proliferation of "Stand your ground" laws, the voting policies that states have begun to employ since the Supreme Court's VRA ruling, the bias that African Americans often experience in the nation's criminal-justice system, still elevated black unemployment and immigration reform.

"Those are the civil rights issues of our time," said Cassis. "Health, education and economic disparities are sadly consistent in this country. But if it weren't for some of the things that happened this year, the march would probably have been more of a celebration, just a gathering. I'm going to Washington expecting the resurgence of a movement, and I suspect that I am not alone."


Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.