Sunday, January 22, 2017
Saturday's marches, in a whole host of cities, were indeed impressive. Perhaps, though, it is not too soon to ask what are the long-term prospects for social change as powered by such events?
The gold standard is of course the 1963 civil-rights march on Washington, which yielded MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." This signal event was preceded by a long period of preparation. The first march was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of SleepingCar Porters. African Americans had benefited less than other groups from New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by fifty thousand people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by any defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination.
The March on Washington was then canceled. Yet the idea survived. I am most familiar with the LGBT marches in Washington, and by no means an expert, yet the comparison may yield some general conclusions. The efficacy of such events depends on two factors: 1) a specific focus on goals, centrally the redressing of long-standing grievances; and 2) a fairly lengthy period of gestation during which various strategies can be tried out and assessed.
I am sorry to play the role of Debbie Downer, but I am not sure if these two conditions can be met in the wake of the current demonstrations, impressive as they are in terms of passion and numbers. The full horror, if you will, of Trump has only been evident for some months - not a long period. Moreover, the causes of the marchers are quite various, for they do not have a single focus, apart from dismay at the result of the election.
There remains the larger issue. Under what circumstances are we prepared to have public policy promulgated in the streets? Sometimes, I would say, yes. But the issue needs to be carefully assessed.