Marches on Washington; Groups Make History on 'National Stage'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 6, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Marches on Washington; Groups Make History on 'National Stage'

Byline: Sarah Marcisz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Mall, home to some of the country's most-recognized memorials, monuments and museums, draws more than tourists. Social activists hold demonstrations there large and small to promote their causes in an attempt to catch Washington's eye and the national spotlight. .

Nearly 50 rallies were held in January on the Mall. The tens of thousands of people who turned out for these and other marches illustrate the long-established tradition of political demonstration.

While marching on the nation's capital may seem routine today, this "intrinsic part of American political culture" was once deemed inappropriate by Washington policy-makers, historian Lucy Barber says in her book, "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition."

"Marches on Washington have transformed the capital from the exclusive domain of politicians and officials into a national stage for American citizens to participate directly in national politics," she writes in the book's introduction.

Using history as a guide, Miss Barber explores what drives the activist culture then compared with now.

Jacob S. Coxey inspired the first march on Washington in 1894. He led several hundred unemployed workers on a trek from Ohio to demand federal action against nationwide unemployment. This "petition in boots" ended with Mr. Coxey's arrest.

At the time, Washington politicians viewed the nation's capital as a place where elected representatives met to make decisions apart from the people, Miss Barber says.

Women's suffragettes, the second group to march on Washington, gathered 8,000 people in 1913, demanding the right to vote from President Wilson.

Activists for early progressive movements marched "because they felt that they had no other way in," Miss Barber says. "They had a sense that their views were unrepresented."

Political demonstration was not a tool of progressive reformers alone, says historian Ralph E. Luker, writer for History News Service.

Before the civil rights march of 1963 that featured Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the largest demonstration was the Ku Klux Klan march in 1925, where 40,000 to 60,000 people gathered to protest U.S. involvement in the International Court of Justice, which rules on disputes between governments.

Marching in the early 1900s carried a certain stigma, says Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University. In 1932, World War I veterans demanding war reparations in the Bonus March were dispersed with tear gas, and their shanties were burned.

Three decades later, when the civil rights movement took its demands to the streets of Washington, marching had become accepted.

"By 1960, it was no longer a unique phenomenon," Mr. Kazin says. "Those participating in a march no longer had the same price to pay in regards to their reputation," Mr. Kazin says.

Granted, demonstrations are commonplace in today's culture, but many people still question the effect they have on Washington officials.

Marcus Raskin, a Vietnam-era anti-war protester, said he was disillusioned about the marches' effects until he read "the Pentagon papers," a secret government study of decision-making about the Vietnam War that was leaked to the New York Times in 1971.

"After the anti-war marches in the '60s, some participants, including myself, thought that they had no effect until I later read the transcripts from different members of Congress and the president and found out that they had an enormous effect," Mr. Raskin says.

Marches are most effective when tied to a strong grass-roots movement that is involved in other political activities such as lobbying Congress, signing petitions, writing letters and local networking, Miss Barber said.

The prospect of national media attention is a big drawing card for movements, but Mr.

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