What Republicans Would Have Found If They'd Gone to the March on Washington Ceremony

Veterans of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom remain deeply concerned with racial justice, voting rights, and education.
James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The hottest accessory at the "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a yellowed button from the original march, worn by a man or woman with white hair.

Paul Stanley, 70, wore a baseball cap's worth of old buttons, as well as ones from earlier commemorations of the 1963 march, which he attended as a young man. "I grew up here when Washington, D.C., was Jim Crow," he said.

He couldn't go into restaurants back then, and if he wanted to buy food from one he had to eat it outside, he recalled. Thanks to the civil-rights movement, he can can go into the restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters that he was not able to enter in some places in the South as late as 1968, he said, ticking off the improvements. As importantly, "We're able to speak our minds."

But there was still work to do when it came to the jobs, education, and voting-rights outlook, he said. "We're only halfway there." That's why he appreciated Barack Obama's political speech at the rally so much. "I'm very happy today to see our black president and the speech he made," said Stanley, now a resident of Bethesda, Maryland.

In interview after interview, it was clear: For the former marchers, Obama wasn't just a manifestation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream -- he was someone they were looking to to go after the unfinished parts of it, from jobs to education to preserving the voting rights they'd fought so hard for during their salad days. "So much progress was made as far as voting rights. I remember my mom and dad not being able to vote," recalled Beverly Johnson, 65, an administrative coordinator at a professional association in Washington, who came to the march at the age of 15 with a group of friends. "It breaks my heart that so much is going on now trying to move backwards in voting rights."

When it comes to the issues that remain, "the president, he probably addressed them better than anyone else," said Roland Johnson, 74, a former marcher, Peace Corps volunteer, and retired philanthropic professional from Philadelphia. Like Stanley, he found Obama's remarks the highlight of the day, which otherwise had too much about King and "the Dream" and too little about jobs and freedom for his taste.

There was a bit of a tendentious debate around the commemoration over whether or not King was engaged in a fundamentally conservative project, as National Review put it, or was somehow secretly a conservative. Maybe the National Review writers should have talked to more of the former marchers. 

The ones who returned Wednesday were not conservatives; black and white alike, they were the sort of people political strategists these days call the Democratic base, even if Democrats were not all on their side back in the day. And they were grateful that Obama's speech had injected a bit of political spice into what was otherwise a fairly depoliticized commemoration of their highly political fight for freedom.

It wasn't an accident that the vast majority of the merchandise for sale along the way to the rally site on the National Mall wove together images of King and America's 44th president.

In fact, if you want a reason every single Republican leader asked to be part of the commemoration line-up turned down the opportunity to stand up for civil rights in front of a giant statue of Lincoln in favor of marking the anniversary in restricted settings before ideological compatriots, or not at all, there's your answer. The men and women Obama commemorated as "men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame" and "ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV" today are no more conservative today than they were in 1963. They've just swapped their formal protest suits and dresses for T-shirts and jeans.

"We were dressed a little different" then, said Nadine Whittington, 80, a 50-year resident of D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood and march veteran, because "there was pressure" to look proper. "This is a little more casual," she said, pointing to her red sweat pants. She wore a matching "Free D.C." red baseball cap in support of D.C. statehood, her latest cause.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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