On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, like the murder of Emett Till 58 years ago in Money, Mississippi, that has galvanized a new generation of civil rights fighters. In Florida, the Dream Defenders occupied the offices of the governor for 31 days, demanding the passage of “Trayvon’s Law,” which would end the Stand Your Ground laws, eliminate racial profiling, and end the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Los Angeles, the Labor/Community Strategy Center and its Fight for the Soul of the Cities Campaign has initiated the Voting Rights Referendum for Trayvon Martin with people’s ballot boxes and polling stations – based on the Freedom Vote that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee initiated in Mississippi in 1964. They are calling on President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate and indict George Zimmerman for violating the civil rights of Martin under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 – in support of the NAACP’s national call. They are also calling on Obama and Holder to investigate and indict the Sanford Police Department for violating the civil rights of Martin under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.This referendum is a direct challenge to the racist criminal justice system and the racist electoral system. It is open to all voters regardless of immigration status, relationship to the criminal justice system, age or any other criteria used by the United States to deny black and Latino people the right to vote.
Chicago for the People, a coalition of grassroots social justice groups, is carrying out the Voting Rights Referendum for Martin as part of its campaign to challenge police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline and racism in Chicago public schools.
These and many other antiracist, immigrant rights and civil rights groups had hoped that those who controlled the agenda of the 50th anniversary of the march would amplify their demands and bring them in front of Obama and Holder with unrelenting force. Instead, some civil rights advocates tied to the hip of the Democratic Party made the protection of Obama from any civil rights demands the “civil rights” issue of our time. The demands on Obama to take powerful federal action to reverse Stand Your Ground laws, bring federal authority against police brutality, end the school-to-prison pipeline, declare the immediate right to vote for all immigrants, end the sham of “comprehensive immigration reform” and bring charges against George Zimmerman and the Sanford police not only were avoided, they were suppressed.
It will take a new, radical, civil rights and black liberation movement in close alliance with the Latino movement to build on the power of the encouraging grassroots work and generate a real march on Washington to end racism, poverty, militarism, xenophobia and capitalist ecological destruction. The demands on the Obama administration, like those on the Kennedy administration 50 years ago, cannot stop. And many vehicles exist for us not just to raise those demands on the president but to convince him to act.
A key step will be to understand the August 1963 March on Washington as one of the great victories for the civil rights and black liberation movement. The revolutionary nature of that event has been so systematically suppressed in the counter-revolutionary rewriting of history that even today’s most militant young black and Latino youths are struggling valiantly without the power of a historical perspective. The fight to reclaim the historical record is essential to rebuild a black liberation movement and a black-Latino alliance at the center of a new multiracial left. On the 50th anniversary of the march, exposing how the system is trying to kill the dream in the name of the dream is a good place to start.
In 1963, the civil rights movement was facing a crisis. The Southern racists, that is, the Southern Democrats, were brutalizing courageous civil rights organizers and longtime black community residents. The Northern Democrats were making weak noises of protest but, as always, bowed to the organized power of the Southern racists – as they had since 1877, when the North removed federal troops from the South with full knowledge that the Southern plantation owners would be returned to power and Klan terror and Jim Crow neo-slavery would be the result. The Kennedy administration was weak on civil rights and threatened by militant black leaders such as Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin. While Kennedy had some empathy, it cannot be underestimated how much he feared the growing Communist influence in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. He was aware that the Cubans, Soviets, Chinese and African revolutionaries – in their condemnation of US imperialist barbarism towards its captive black population and their enthusiastic support of the black liberation struggle – were gaining influence as that of the US was declining.
In that context, liberal Northern Democrats and Republicans pushed Kennedy to pass a federal civil rights bill to end Jim Crow, to end discrimination in employment, housing, transportation and education – and to provide massive federal investment in social services and jobs for black people. They argued that Kennedy could not head off a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And if the establishment did not sanction the march, the angry black masses would take over the capital. That set the stage for a day of powerful oratory and making history on the spot.
Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to recapture that revolutionary moment in history.
Martin Luther King’s Revolutionary Dream
“One hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation] the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the Negro finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
And with that one sentence condemning Mississippi and New York – and the bankruptcy of the US electoral system – King’s dream was understood to be a revolutionary dream, coming down on the White House like a ton of bricks and demanding freedom now.
John Lewis’ Speech at the March on Washington
“We march today for jobs and freedom. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges. What about the three young men in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?
” … In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. “One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.
“The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. All of us must stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until the revolution is complete. In the Delta of Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in Alabama, Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march! By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy. ”
It is no wonder that the system tries to suppress Dr. King’s revolutionary dream and John Lewis’ call for revolution led by the black masses. Today, we witness the horror of the system’s racist re-enslavement complex with its mass incarceration of 2.5 million people. We see rampant police brutality against every black and Latino kid in the inner city, a nativist white settler state that has the nerve to deport 400,000 Latino immigrants a year and offer those who remain the guarantee of a militarized border and the false promise of a decadeslong “path to citizenship.” We observe in horror a capitalist society, with its uncontrollable drive to conquer all of life and nature, burning the planet to the ground. In this context, we should listen to the words of King Jr. and Lewis as a reflection of the majesty of the civil rights and black liberation movement and its unprecedented contribution to a better world for all oppressed people. Today, armed with the historical record and a vision of a new world, a new generation of urban and rural militants can once again make and write its own history.