Analysis: Why Obama's March on Washington Failed

Susan Walsh/AP

Martin Luther King Jr. never had any corporate sponsors. But the program for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington was replete with "appreciation" for AT&T, Exxon Mobil, and Target. The half-century old march was a demand for government action, so politicians were missing from the podium. This time, three presidents bestrode the dais. And while 1963 had the music of resistance—courtesy of Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson—the reunion tour featured LeAnn Rimes, glorious gospel, and even a performance by Maori tribesmen whose Haka, or war dance, seemed anything but nonviolent.

Despite the odd staging, it's hard not to be touched by Wednesday's gathering on the National Mall—not only because of the divine moment it commemorates but also because it is solemn and stirring when tens of thousands of Americans abandon their malls and office parks to ask for an extension of political rights. (In that way, at least, the March for Life is just as poignant.) So, celebrate the celebration.

Still, the day also seemed marked by lost opportunities. It was never going to live up to the 1963 march; even President Obama acknowledged that, saying "we may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling processions of that day so long ago." But the grievances this time were ill defined and most speeches were a procession of predictable we've-come-so-far-but-have-so-far-to-go remarks that could have been said in 1973 (and, alas, will probably be repeated in 2053). As admirable and inspiring as it was at times, the day's shortcomings show what challenges modern protest movements face—and the opportunities they can still seize.

First, this week's event fell into the rare unenviable niche of speeches commemorating speeches. It's little remembered now but there was also a 20th Anniversary March on Washington that aimed to crush Reaganism. (It didn't work out so well.) Lincoln's Gettysburg address begat woefully inadequate anniversary speeches. The one Woodrow Wilson gave for the 50th anniversary, for instance, was a rhetorical dud and a fantastically obtuse celebration of post-Civil-War progress. He was only applauded twice. The New York Times called it "a trifle academic." Even FDR, who gave two big speeches at Gettysburg, didn't deliver anything very memorable. Who could?

This week's march had the potential to improve on those middling remembrances. Forest Whitaker's touching talk about love and John Lewis' Biblical retelling of life under Jim Crow were high points. But for the most part, the convoy of short speeches had a certain rote quality. Many took obligatory shots at stop and frisk—an anti-crime tactic that's odious but not Jim Crow—but police, backed by courts, are not about abandon a liberal interpretation of probable cause. There were lots of justifiable complaints about the proliferation of voter ID laws and the Supreme Court decision curtailing a key section of the Voting Rights Act—but no talk of how to pressure Congress to respond. Bill Clinton took a well-aimed swipe at congressional gridlock, but he oddly ignored filibuster abuse, a phenomenon that links King's time and ours. Once deployed (unsuccessfully) against the great civil rights legislation, it is now used for just about everything but a foot powder. And one of the fastest waterslides to poverty, teenage pregnancy for Americans of all races, didn't merit attention.

Maybe the biggest lesson of the day is that some of the greatest social transformations of recent times haven't been fueled by marches. In some ways, the same-sex marriage movement echoed the civil rights movement in the 40s and 50s (legal challenges and political action were twin tools) but deployed digital-era speed. But the same-sex cause has had less to do with mass marches—though rainbow rallies are familiar enough—and more with unflinching persuasion with which gays argued, like King, that all they wanted was to be part of the American family. Just as King brushed back calls from white moderates who asked "when will you be satisfied," gays declined to accept the half-measures, like civil unions, offered by their ostensible allies.

Another social overhaul owes nothing at all to protesters. The Surgeon General's famed anti-smoking report came a year after the March on Washington. Within a generation, smoking among adults had fallen by half, from over 40 percent of adults to under 20 percent of adults. Winning hearts and minds came from a combination of policies, litigation, and the exercise of the rights of nonsmokers against entrenched power.

Obama seems to be at a crossroads. He set out to change Washington and, famously, ran into a phalanx of obstructionism and his own mistakes. He used his speech essentially to call for reinforcements, noting that the march wasn't just about King and the leaders but about the everyday Americans—"seamstresses and steelworks," he said—who set out toward Washington that day. Time's running out for him to harness today's crowd, a throng with fewer suits and ties than 50 years ago, with more turbans and hijabs. He needs them even if the marching orders are less clear.

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