Susan Walsh/AP

Analysis: Why Obama's March on Washington Failed

This week’s “I Have a Dream” commemoration was poignant, inspiring—and full of missed opportunities.


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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.