In 1969, the largest antiwar protest in the United States took place in Washington, D.C., when an estimated half a million people gathered in the nation’s capital to plead for an end to the Vietnam War. Demonstrations were held in other cities and towns across the country in the months that followed. I was at the one in New York City, where so many people participated it was impossible to duck into a storefront for relief from the crush of people who’d had enough. It was an amazing way to experience people power up close.
America has a long record of marches that changed history. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s African Americans, joined by many white activists, mobilized for a difficult and unprecedented journey to equality and human rights that continues today. It started with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and was followed by several marches and other actions, culminating with the 1963 March on Washington. That was the largest political rally for human rights ever seen in the U.S., with approximately 300,000 people converging on the Mall to protest for African Americans’ freedom. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The event led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Five years later, the Poor People’s Campaign, a multicultural movement, led to Resurrection City, where tents were set up along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. A major march occurred there called a Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace and Freedom. It happened on June 19, 1968.
At about this time the women’s movement was coalescing and mobilizing to act for women’s rights and full equality, as their foremothers had done for the right to vote. The suffragettes had stopped at nothing, suffering forced feedings and other brutality in jail. It paid off when the 19th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1919; its 100th anniversary is being observed as I write.
Fifty years later, activists organized a Women’s Strike for Equality in New York. More than 50,000 women attended and more than 100,000 demonstrated in solidarity in 42 states. Later, marches on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment began — and continued across the country. (Congress still has not ratified the ERA, but we’re getting closer.)
After the ERA, women marched again for abortion rights and reproductive health and privacy with massive demonstrations taking place in Washington in 1986 and 1989. I was there in 1989 as an activist and journalist, proud to join the crowds that equaled or surpassed protest marches that had taken place against the Vietnam War. Then, of course, came Jan. 21, 2017, when hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington after Donald Trump became president.
Today, people in places as diverse as Romania, Venezuela and Hong Kong are marching against their governments to demand equality, freedom, justice and human rights. Representing all ages, genders, abilities and classes, and defying everything from bad weather to police brutality they are fighting together against corruption, greed and autocracy.
The common denominator in all these historical moments and current events is that people have gathered together to mourn what they were losing, or never had; and then they marched. They took to the streets in massive numbers and marched in solidarity in their capitals until their governments listened. And they changed history — sometimes incrementally, but always dramatically.
I wonder why that isn’t happening now, here, again. Why aren’t Americans, the majority of whom dislike or despise what the Trump administration has wrought and robbed us of, mobilized in unity like we once did around monumental issues and threats to our security and well-being? Why is our collective outrage not on display in such powerful ways that there is no ignoring our refusal to collude?
When children are ripped from their parents and caged in cold jails indefinitely, and made ill physically and emotionally; when youth are murdered because of their skin color; when adults die for lack of access to medical care; when gun violence takes innocent lives every day; when women have no control over their own bodies; when the president has a total lack of morality because of personal gain and massive ego; when we know he is guilty of violating the Constitution and of committing impeachable offenses; when he surrounds himself with unqualified and often cruel acolytes; what is keeping us from marching and marching and marching — and perhaps even camping out on the Mall indefinitely — in defense of democracy and human rights?
Why, I must ask, haven’t we called for and enacted a national day of mourning, and marching?
As one activist of the 1980s put it: “No matter what they are called, perhaps the single most powerful, peaceful way to bring about social change is for people to stand together publicly on behalf of an important cause.”
In a more current context, that’s what protesters in Hong Kong did. As one of them noted recently, “All we can do as citizens is keep going, protest peacefully and let the government and regime know our demands.”
Are we ready, America?