BY Jim Harding
August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when 250,000 people gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. give his historic “I have a dream” speech. This event was a turning point in the long struggle for civil rights for Afro-Americans who grew up in the aftermath of slavery. And it marked a turning point in politics both in Canada and abroad.
I had just turned 22 when I travelled to the March on Washington, one of the estimated 50,000 “whites” who joined the overwhelmingly black demonstration. The peace and civil rights movements were overlapping with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which did much of the mobilizing for the March, borrowing tactics like the sit-in from peace groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament led by British philosopher Bertrand Russell. When I arrived in Washington I was part of the Quebec-Guantanamo March for peace which was challenging the U.S. trade blockade of Cuba.
I will never forget the humanizing energy at this massive event. I was quickly adopted by two older black women who grabbed my hands and pulled me along as we walked towards the Lincoln Memorial. That ended all self-consciousness, as I now truly felt I belonged in this monumental step towards a post-racial society. In King’s moving speech he talked of us all being judged by the content of our character, not the colour of our skin.
There, of course, never was any scientific basis for racial categories: we are all members of one human species and we overlap with other bipedal and primate species in an intricate evolutionary web. While racism is not yet dead, we are beginning to question the interrelated specieism used to justify the domination of nature.
At the time I was enrolled in graduate studies in social psychology at the University of Saskatchewan. I had been hired by the Centre for Community Studies to do field research on motivation and education curriculum in the northern communities of Ile a La Cross, Beauval and Buffalo Narrows. The American literature critical of “race” was instructive. Slavery had marginalized, stigmatized and segregated Afro-Americans from mainstream society and political participation and racism had become entrenched to justify the double standards and violence that upheld white supremacy. The reserve system under Canada’s Indian Act had done a similar thing, segregating indigenous people from mainstream society. Pass Laws had restricted the movement of First Nations people off reserves and they had only recently been granted the right to vote. South Africa had learned a lot from us.
The American literature on caste helped me better understand what was happening in northern Saskatchewan. I was learning that slavery and colonialism were two sides of the same historical “coin”, both leading to oppression and rigid stratification which then got justified in racialistic terms. The content and tone of racial slurs about “Negroes” had a lot of similarity to those made about “Indians” and “Half-breeds”.
All speeches at the March on Washington were given by men, mostly from the black organizations that coalesced around this astounding event. Many singer-performers, however, were women: including Joan Baez and Mary of Peter, Paul and Mary, along with the powerful black singers Odetta, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, who softened people’s hearts to hear King’s transcendental message. A majority of the performers, including young and self-conscious Bob Dylan, were white but everything blended into the larger cause of human rights.
At the time I didn’t fully grasp the behind the scene politics. The March was primarily animated by SNCC, originally to protest the assassination of civil rights worker Medgar Evers in June of 1963 and to expose President Kennedy’s weak civil rights draft legislation. SNCC leader John Lewis, the only speaker from 1963 still with us, was cajoled by older, black leaders to change his wording about this legislation being “too little too late”.
Were it not for the idealism and courage of young black activists no longer heeding the warning of their parents about the dangers of challenging segregation, that system might still be in place. And as the mobilization grew bigger, as more and more buses arrived, many of the senior black leaders saw the potential for creating mass, spiritual pressure on the Democratic Party. Kennedy welcomed the March’s speakers back to the White House. The historic proportions of the March played a role in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voters Rights Act passed but Kennedy didn’t live to see this happen.
I was young, adamant and still naïve. When I stopped at an all-white downtown bar in Philadelphia on my drive back to Saskatoon I was still wearing a “March on Washington” button on my shirt. This was a mistake; I didn’t know until later that there was serious local conflict over desegregating the suburbs where blacks had previously been banned. Many hours later I was awakened by a supportive policeman who helped me find my car, while informing me that there had been similar cases of civil rights supporters being drugged in the bars. Parts of the U.S. north, it seemed, weren’t more advanced than the Deep South.
Violence from white supremacist groups escalated in the aftermath of the March; the Birmingham bombing, killing four children, was the Klan’s response. I was to join SNCC’s Freedom Summer in 1964 as a volunteer to help with voter registration in Mississippi. While in Baltimore for nonviolent training, word came that three of SNCC’s visiting student volunteers had been lynched and many of us were turned back. While disappointing, this motivated me to look more closely at racism in our back yard.
I returned to Saskatchewan committed to draw on the experience for local activism and soon met Métis leader Malcolm Norris who took me under his wing. In discussions with him and John Totoosis who helped found the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI), we envisaged what was to become the Student Neestow Partnership Project (SNPP). Inspired by SNCC’s nonviolent desegregation campaigns (sit-ins and freedom rides), SNPP recruited student activists for placements in willing Métis and Reserve communities in rural and northern Saskatchewan. The project met with great resistance from both levels of government and entrenched community leadership but it was a first, necessary step in educating student activists about the impoverishment, oppression and desire for self-determination in these communities. It helped inspire and build important cross-colonial and extended family networks to better work for human rights.
The March on Washington resonated around the globe. It gave impetus to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. It’s impossible to imagine Obama as U.S. president or Mandela as the first president of a post-racial South Africa without Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Known affectionately as Madeba, Mandela clings to life by a thread on the 50th anniversary. King of course died years before in 1968, because of the hateful racism that persisted in the aftermath of the huge show of support for human rights in Washington in 1963.
It wasn’t long before the civil rights movement joined hands with the peace movement, especially after the U.S. escalated the bombing of Vietnam in 1964-65. King as well as Malcolm X started to question the U.S. Empire and its racist foreign policies and to revision the struggle as being for human rights and global justice, not just civil rights within America. This struggle for equality will continue to ebb and flow from one region to another. In some ways, 50 years later, Canada is still behind the U.S. but perhaps not for long. From the beginning of the emergence of Idle No More there’s been a familiar feeling in the air and I am again reminded of the energy that flourished at the March on Washington.