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Where were the voices to lead a new nonviolent movement?

Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana

Reflections on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

I have been reflecting on the importance of the National Action to Realize the Dream march on August 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C. It was a huge, very diverse gathering, with people coming from all over the country to be part of an historic event.

Why does it feel that while the movement is still alive, the energy and vision are missing?

When I reflect back on the first march in 1963, it was at a real changing moment in the civil rights movement. It was clear that the tide was turning, and people felt they could make a difference.

Much had been achieved in education rights, desegregation of public utilities, and the possibility of President Kennedy pushing through passage of the Civil Rights Act. It was a moment of expectation and excitement.

The idea of a nonviolent march on Washington was new and daring. Would people come, would they remain nonviolent, would it be impactful in bringing change? There had never been anything like this before, and people flocked to D.C. in the thousands. Pittsburgh sent over 1,000 on a freedom train to the event.

As I made my way through the thousands of people in D.C. on Saturday, I was impressed with the diversity, the messaging and the sense of history. These were the people who came to D.C. 50 years ago, and the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of those who went away with a vision of change from the first march.

However, the same feelings of excitement and possibilities for change were not reflected in the crowd.

The signs and messages were calling for changes that we had hoped would already be in place: justice, voting rights, equal and good education for all.

Large marches do not get the same attention they once did, and it was only the historic aspects of this one that got the media’s attention.

My fear is that in a society where so much is decided by violence, both physical and societal, we will forget the lessons of nonviolence. Nonviolence requires inner strength and discipline, it requires us to see the humanity in everyone while defeating injustice and it requires us to love not to hate. I wondered where were the voices calling us to the radical transformative power of nonviolence?

While there were good speeches, none will stand out as one that fired up the crowd to seek change. And where was the music?

Many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were young; Martin Luther King, Jr. was 34 years old in 1963 and many of the other speakers were young then, too.

My sense in Washington, DC was that instead of breathing life into a new movement for today, we were idolizing the past. The spiritual fire needed to address the deep dysfunctions of today can’t come from counting the accomplishments of the past, but instead must arise from experiencing and expressing “the urgency of now” in a way that addresses the new ways injustice has manifested today.

I believe that people are beginning to wake up and see the injustices in our society, and realize that it is up to us to make the difference. 

Philip Agnew, Executive Director of the Dream Defenders, and Sofia Campos of United we Dream were both scheduled to talk on the celebration on Wednesday, August 28th. But those before them took too long and so their speeches were cut. They were among few young people invited to speak. 

Both of these young, visionary leaders offer the wisdom and energy to ignite a fresh, contemporary movement for justice that doesn’t just look back, but looks forward to realize King’s dream for this day, for our time. They speak of the power of nonviolence to transform the current abusive policies that ensnare so many into policies of compassion based on the common good.   

Though Philip and Sofia were cut from the program on Wednesday, they both recorded their messages, powerful calls about being ready for change. Philip’s opening remarks ring all too true as the U.S. once again considers a march to war.

“By the time we finish our conversation this morning, another black boy will lay bleeding in the streets of Chicago. And as we rest our heads tonight, 300,000 of our veterans will lay their heads homeless. And I would love to explain to you how the hate we spread abroad is the real reason that hatred washes upon our shores, but I only have two minutes.”

I suggest taking two minues to listen to each speech. Where are the new leaders of a nonviolent movement for change? Listen and you may discover them.



About the Author

Scilla Wahrhaftig has a long history of Quaker activism, in England, Zimbabwe and the US.  In November 2001 she spent nine months as staff for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York working on the issues arising from 9/11.