The Washington Post has a long-form story about the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Of Our Necks!” this Friday on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Friday August 28. The March Carries On (excerpts).
It arose from a spur of the moment suggestion from civi rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton at the funeral of George Floyd.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks, because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton said, his voice detonating into a roar, as the audience leaped to its feet and people shouted, “Preach, Rev!”
He saluted Martin Luther King III, who was in the audience. “I’m glad Martin the Third is here today,” Sharpton said. “Because on August 28th, the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, we’re going back to Washington, Martin. That’s where your father stood in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial and said, ‘I have a dream.’ Well, we’re going back this August 28th to restore and recommit that dream.”
The audience erupted with applause. Someone sitting next to King clapped him on the shoulder while King’s chest heaved with deep, emotional breaths. The announcement of a big national march was a surprise. Commemorating major anniversaries of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is commonplace — King and Sharpton led a march on the 50th in 2013 — but the 57th hardly qualifies as major. Sharpton had in mind a bigger agenda than mere commemoration. He had discussed the possibility with King and a few others. But no decision to go public had been made. There was no plan, no budget, no permit. And there was a pandemic.
“I didn’t know I was going to announce it until the moment,” Sharpton told me a couple of weeks later. “I started thinking on that platform that people are paying attention. We got a caustic president. This is the time. If we can’t get real national legislation now, I don’t know what else could do it.”
For the first time since 1963, a civil rights march has the potential to come close to the original in leaving a lasting impact — not just by paving the way for legislative victories, but by braiding disparate moral dramas and individual stories from local communities into a teeming tapestry on America’s front lawn. And since it comes in a presidential election year — unlike the original — this march will be charged by the politics of the moment, poised to channel resistance to President Trump’s record of race baiting into a massive get-out-the-vote effort.
Still, this will be no easy test of the relevance of a 57-year-old organizing tactic. The 1963 march pioneered the now-familiar ritual of elevating all manner of causes — from peace and women’s rights to calls for an end to abortion — by massing supporters on the Mall within sight of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Sharpton, 65, perhaps shows his age by resorting to it almost by default. With the recent flourishing of another style of protest — autonomous, local demonstrations exploding in real time on the streets and social media with no central planning — will young Black Lives Matter demonstrators turn out for what they might consider their grandfathers’ march on Washington? And is a massive march on the Mall even possible in the time of covid?
Within a day of Sharpton’s announcement, Washington hotels began to sell out for that weekend. A half-dozen of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations quickly joined as co-sponsors. Sharpton said he was overwhelmed with people promising to march. “I’m sure all of them thought it was a well-laid-out plan already,” he told me. “But if you know the ’60s, that’s how they did. I mean, it has always been a leap of faith.”
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I asked Charles Euchner, author of “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” what impact the 2020 march could have, capitalizing on today’s high quotients of outrage, activism, pandemic anxiety and pre-election mobilization. “This could be a New Deal moment,” he said. “It could be a Civil Rights Act of ’64 moment.”
At the very least, the gathering will make history as the first national march organized from self-isolation via Zoom … Sharpton held weekly video chats with King and the march’s co-sponsors: Sharpton’s National Action Network, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and several labor unions.
Organizers needed to work out the message and mechanics of a demonstration that could be staged in two universes: physical and digital.
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For the planners, the surreal circumstances underscored how historic the undertaking was. “It feels urgent because of what we’ve been seeing in the last couple months,” Riley told me. “We call it a double pandemic. You have the uptick of health disparities in our community mixed in with police misconduct and racism or discrimination.”
Through one socially distanced brainstorm after another, the march — now being called the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks — began to take shape. The first line of marchers would be families of people killed by police, potentially including loved ones of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (shot by police in her bed in Louisville, 2020), Eric Garner (placed in a fatal chokehold by an officer in New York, 2014), Michael Brown (shot by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., 2014), Botham Jean (shot in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty officer, 2018), Tamir Rice (shot by Cleveland police at age 12 while holding a toy gun, 2014), Josef Richardson (shot by a sheriff’s deputy in West Baton Rouge Parish, La., 2019), Terence Crutcher (shot by an officer in Tulsa, 2016) and others. Also invited would be families of those killed by vigilantes, such as Trayvon Martin (shot at age 17 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., 2012) and Ahmaud Arbery (shot while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., 2020).
Organizers envisioned the families forming a tragic tableau on the Mall that would capture the emotion of the day for the viral posterity of Instagram. If a physical march became impossible, how to choreograph the image virtually was yet to be decided. Iconic images of demonstrators tightly packed around the Reflecting Pool, as in 1963, could not be counted on. Virtual workarounds would have a hard time making up for the old-school visceral shiver of seeing — and being in — a thunderous tide of humanity channeled in a singular endeavor.
Following a two-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial, at 1 p.m. the family members would lead the marchers to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial near the Tidal Basin. The lineup of speakers was in flux, though almost certainly it would include King’s son, Sharpton, leaders of major civil rights groups, surprise celebrities and musical performers.
Meanwhile, the NAACP oversaw the programming for a virtual march, for those reluctant to join a masked and socially distanced gathering. (A significant precedent took place on June 20, when the Rev. William J. Barber II held an online Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington; his organization claimed more than 2.5 million people watched on Facebook.) The 2020 Virtual March on Washington will accompany the physical Get Your Knee Off Our Necks march and include eight hours of programming, offered to television networks and presented on social media platforms.
And so, what started as a recapitulation of the historic march that had provided the template for hundreds of crusades was turning into a reimagining of the very nature and possibilities of marching on Washington.
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[Sharpton] assumed tens of thousands of people would show up, covid or no covid, and the organizers had to make the demonstration as safe as possible. The action network would order 50 percent more buses than ordinarily needed so riders could space out in them. March marshals would require social distancing. Any marcher without a mask would be given one. A phrase was crafted for social media: “No mask, no march.”
“Even if we got to do another 100,000 face masks, everybody that gets on a NAN bus,” Sharpton said, “they got to have a mask on.”
By the end of July, organizers realized even those precautions might not be enough. They came up with an alternative plan: If certain states remained virus hot spots, march buses would no longer travel from there. Instead, solidarity rallies would take place outside choice targets in those states, such as the offices of GOP Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), Marco Rubio (Florida) and John Cornyn (Texas), where giant screens would show the action in D.C. In addition, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said marchers should abide by any quarantine regulations in effect for visitors on that day.
No matter what, there would be a demonstration on the Mall, Sharpton vowed. “I don’t care if we have [just] the families, Martin and me, and two people. … Covid will dictate a lot of the crowd, but the message will be strong.”
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No one can say if an oration on par with King’s will emerge this August, but the 2020 march organizers know they must not just touch the hearts being turned by the torturous death of George Floyd. They must transform emotion into a political program.
The central demands will be for the Senate to pass a voting rights bill named after John Lewis and a police reform law named after George Floyd. The voting rights measure, passed by the House in December, would restore elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had championed but that the Supreme Court weakened. The police bill would prohibit chokeholds, create a database to track police misconduct nationwide and make it easier to hold officers accountable in civil and criminal court, among other provisions. Both measures have been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. March organizers blasted a narrower approach to police reform proposed by Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, saying it’s too weak. “This is the one time that Senator Scott could stand up and … challenge his colleagues as a Black man,” King told me. “This is the one time they would have to listen if he said … ‘We need to make sure law enforcement treats everybody right.’ And that doesn’t seem to be something he’s willing to do.”
Yet the march is not likely to promote the more controversial rallying cry of many demonstrators: “Defund the police.” Organizers support some form of reallocating funds from law enforcement to community investment and social programs that would reduce the need for police encounters. But they are wary of letting the meaning of the march be reduced to a mantra that critics deliberately misinterpret as “abolishing” the police.
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If the concept of defunding the police is raised at all during the march — the exact policy language was still being worked on in the final weeks — it will be shrouded with [some] nuance. “While ‘defund the police’ is an appealing term, it should not replace the fact that many of us, myself included, have been messaging around what we call holistic approaches to public safety for years,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told me. “It just wasn’t called ‘defund the police.’ … There’s broad consensus that the public safety function needs to be reimagined, and that there needs to be greater investments in affordable housing, community development, youth, investments in jobs, in schools, in after-school programs. In other words, take the slogan, put meat on it.”
The demands will begin with police misconduct. But since the pandemic has helped call into question more fundamental assumptions, organizers will pivot to broader themes of systemic racism and democracy in crisis. “We are literally witnessing the birth of our nation’s 21st-century civil rights movement,” says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This moment presents an opportunity to confront some of the ugliest aspects of our nation’s history.”
Martin Luther King III was 5 years old in 1963; he did not attend the march with his father. Now, he says, an opportunity has arisen unlike any since then. “This is the time to demand everything, to make our society a better society once and for all,” he told me. “Dad wanted to eradicate what he called the triple evils of poverty, racism and he used ‘militarism.’ I sort of change ‘militarism’ to ‘violence.’ … We have an opportunity in a monumental way to begin reducing all of these areas.”
Turning activism into action on those fronts will require people to be counted, both in the census and at the ballot box. Organizers accuse Trump and his allies of attempting to discourage participation in the census and suppress the vote. So the march will feature stations to inform people about completing the census and registering to vote. Poll watchers will be recruited, and information on “election protection” measures will be circulated. “We have the responsibility to bring some level of concrete change to this moment,” Sharpton told me. “Otherwise people will remember it as a summer of discontent that we did not turn into legislation and affect the election.”
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Before Sharpton announced the Aug. 28 march, Byrd and the Electoral Justice Project, an arm of the Movement for Black Lives, were planning a gathering for the same date: a Black National Convention to be held in Detroit. The pandemic forced a switch to a virtual convention, to be streamed on the group’s site, blacknovember.org. The organizers anticipate up to 4 million Black voters participating via watch parties across the country. The convention will ratify an agenda on police reform, economic justice and other issues that it will demand the next president take up in the administration’s first 100 days. Participants will be given activist “tool kits” to help them work on issues in their communities.
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The premise of the convention is that what is required to turn protest into power at this point is not another march, but a strategic marshaling of political and electoral pressure.
“The truth is that we have two specifically distinctive audiences,” Byrd says of the organizations behind the march and the new wave planning the convention. “Our favorite aunt’s org and our favorite org may be different. But we absolutely believe that Black people engaged in their own political destiny in a political home is the right thing for everyone.”
For their part, march organizers are relieved that the convention is set to kick off in the hours after the march concludes. Marchers can watch the convention during the bus ride home. And Sharpton, sensitive to any appearance of a generational divide, has entrusted to younger people much of the planning of what he calls an “intergenerational” demonstration. The Washington logistics hub is managed by activists in their 20s and 30s.
“I feel like, you know, they’ll have homecoming, and in the evening, we’ll have prom,” Byrd says. “And I think that the whole weekend will be really kind of a blessed and exciting time of engagement.”
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In the six weeks following the death of George Floyd, there were about 5,700 anti-racism, anti-police-brutality protests across the country, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium, which has been tracking the demonstrations. In comparison, at a time when marching for racial justice was less customary and more dangerous, in the 10 weeks after the Birmingham campaign of April-May 1963, there were 758 demonstrations for civil rights in 186 cities, according to Hansen in “The Dream.”
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This march, timed as it is to the politics of the moment, almost requires a presence in Washington. “This is also about a contrast with Trump and taking on Trump,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a co-sponsor of the march. “Just like in ’63, it was basically sending Kennedy a message that justice can’t wait. Now it’s sending Trump a message that you have betrayed the people.”
“The national march is not the only thing you do, but it’s a major thing you do because you’ve got to address the national government,” Sharpton told me. “Donald Trump is the adversarial mayor or chief that you can build a movement around. … He’s our Bull Connor.”
Aug. 28 is the anniversary of another important milestone in the struggle for civil rights. Sixty-five years ago on that date, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. The open casket at his funeral showing his brutalized body shocked the public who saw the photos, drawing attention to violent racism. At the time, it was seen as an inflection point, when society could take a significant turn — a moment like today.
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[Sharpton] brimmed with confidence that the 2020 march would do his elders proud and make history. Yet, of course, he couldn’t know. The proof would come after, perhaps long after, when history will show whether this inflection point turns out to be decisive, or one more step in a seemingly never-ending journey.
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