March on Washington at 50: Commemoration vs. Movement

March on Washington at 50: Commemoration vs. Movement

March on Washington at 50: Commemoration vs. Movement

Representatives of the youth generation were cut from yesterday’s roster of speakers, but that won’t stop them from building a movement on their own.


Students of Howard University march to the Lincoln Memorial to participate in the Realize the Dream Rally for the fiftieth anniversary of the March in Washington, August 24, 2013. (Reuters/James Lawler Duggan)

I had little interest in the March on Washington fiftieth-anniversary festivities. I have no problem with taking time out to honor those who came before us and struggled and fought for what gains we have made in terms of racial and economic justice. I’m all for it. But I also believe that the greatest way to honor those folks is by continuing the work to ensure that future generations will have the privilege of looking back into history in horror and not seeing any parallels to their present. However, after Saturday’s events, it was hard not to feel, as Brittney Cooper of Salon put it, that what took place was “eulogy for a bygone era, [rather] than a call to action.”

That feeling of ambivalence and mourning was only furthered yesterday, on the official anniversary of the march, when word came down that Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders and Sofia Campos of United We Dream had been cut from the roster of speakers. The young people, my generation, were shut out.

The speeches that were given were generally fine speeches, as far as speeches go, but none came close to capturing the spirit of the times in which we live or setting a vision for where we need to go. That’s the purpose of youth voices and that’s what was lacking once Agnew and Campos were told there wouldn’t be enough time for their two-minute speeches. But it also made all the more clear what yesterday was and was not.

Yesterday was not about indicting America. It was a celebration. It was about paying lip service to the myriad forms of oppression that plague this country, without any specific agenda for how to eradicate them. Yesterday was about America patting itself on the back for finding one speech given by one black man to be important to its history. It was not about what brought more than 200,000 people to Washington, DC, that day, or the actual content of that speech, which was a radical call for justice, equality and freedom. Yesterday was not about updating the dream. It was about finding complacency in our progress.

Yesterday was about commemoration. Today is about movement.

When you listen to what Agnew planned to say, it’s not at all shocking why he was cut from the program. His brief speech takes this country to task on a number of issues that would have made the former presidents sitting on that stage squirm in their seats.

His are words dedicated to movement building. They are a warning to America that its youth would not sit idly by as this country continues to walk with pride in its hypocrisy. They are a call to action, not a lecture. Agnew’s words are the antithesis of what yesterday was about, but to the young people who will come across them via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or other social media, they are exactly what needs to be said.

And we won’t apologize to the old guard for our movement looking unfamiliar to them. In his New York Times column, Charles M. Blow wonders when young people are going to take up the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. He worries that there is no new leader. He says: “There is a vacuum in the American body politic waiting to be filled by a young person of vision and courage, one not suckled to sleep by reality television and social media monotony.”

To Mr. Blow I will say: it will not be a young person, it will be young people, and they will use that same social media you bemoan as monotonous to organize, and then return home to watch the reality television they DVR’d. And you will deal.

We are a generation of activists and intellectuals who understand very clearly, as Blow states, that “mass incarceration, poverty, gun policy, voting rights, women’s access to health care, LGBT rights, educational equality, immigration reform” are “all interrelated.” That our elders don’t know that is because they either aren’t paying attention or because they snatch the mic away when we try to speak. But we won’t be silenced. We won’t wait “our turn.” Our turn is today.

President Barack Obama, whose speech hit the usual notes when the subject of race comes up (Jamelle Bouie, Jelani Cobb, Imara Jones and Ta-nehisi Coates all take him to task for a rather lackluster address), did wander into something poignant when he said:

“There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.”

While our movement will remember and learn from the ones that came before us and continually pay homage, it will not allow that memory to hamper our creativity, our urgency, nor our commitment. We will not apologize. We will win.

Gary Younge writes about how Dr. King’s dream is still misunderstood.

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