An Insider's View of the Voting Rights March
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
By Michael McQuillan / Washington, D.C.
“I didn't make the 1963 March on Washington but I did the last one. I vowed to my wife that anytime there is a justice march I'll be here. We need justice beyond just voting rights. We've got a lot of cleaning up to do in this country.” Youthful enthusiasm mixed with sage wisdom in Bernard Johnson’s words. “Talk to the man,” he added, meaning me while poking Ted Smith, his partner. They are 70 years young, at rest on a Lafayette Park bench near the White House in the sweltering summer sun. Their tired feet belie fertile minds.
The pair were two of the thousands of people participating on Saturday, August 28, in the March On For Voting Rights, co-sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and Martin Luther King III, board chairperson of the Drum Major Institute, a not-for-profit organization that “convenes leaders for peaceful solutions to racism, poverty and violence.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Service Employees International Union and 51 for 51, a group espousing Washington, D.C. statehood, were among 140 partner organizations which participated.
Yet Saturday’s turnout estimates tumbled from the “tens of thousands” predicted to the “thousands” that NPR, USA Today and CBS News reported actually turned out. The marchers were calling upon Congress to pass two pieces of important legislation; the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act , which would restore parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that two recent Supreme Court decisions weakened and the For the People Act which would prohibit the partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. The latter practice frequently dilutes the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities while protecting incumbent elected officials.
In sharp contrast. on the same day, the Southern Christian Leadership Committee, National Urban League, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, National Council of Churches of Christ, the UAW, the Congress of Racial Equality and allied groups were able to mobilize 250,000 people for the seminal August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial concluded. The Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Bayard Rustin coordinated a 200-member organizing staff,
The speakers this time lauded Rev. Sharpton’s role. But the anniversary connection he played up in the media before the march day, he downplayed thereafter. The National Mall, not the Lincoln Memorial, was the chosen site this time, Sharpton told Reuters, to focus on the Capitol where “Senators will decide whether to continue the segregationist legislative strategy of filibuster or whether they're going to give the people of this country the right to vote with no prohibition. That building is the target of our social justice movement. Not 58 years ago, but today.” Yet with the stage far from it, halfway down the 1.8 mile National Mall, and Congress itself on recess, the intent and reality had little connection.
The crowd, despite torrid heat, took its role seriously before melting away through the hourlong delay in starting the rally.
“Even your presence makes a major statement when you come out to voice your opinion,” Ted Smith, the wise septuagenerian told me. “You’ve got to come out for yourself, for dignity.” With 48 states having introduced 389 voter suppression bills since January to ban ballot drop boxes and mail-in voting, restrict early voting and criminalize the act of giving water to persons waiting on long Election Day voter lines, there is ample need to strongly push back against that in public.
“We have waited too long and suppressed our own power. The promissory note was not cashed,” Deborah Scott, CEO of Georgia Stand Up, a speaker, cried out on the stage, reviving Dr. King's 1963 speech metaphor before launching a fierce call and response exchange of “Stand up!” and “Vote!” A march would have launched well at that point. But with marching done, that valuable moment passed as Scott stepped from the stage to shake hands with aides.
Houston Bishop James Dixon, that city's new NAACP president, roused the shrinking but attentive crowd with a stirring introduction of the Texas state legislators whose monthlong stay on Capitol Hill in support of the voting rights bills put them at risk for arrest for preventing a quorum that would make passing the Lone Star State’s voter suppression measures a foregone conclusion.
Most Saturday speakers, though, played more to the battery of television cameras mounted on scaffolds than to the members of the live audience, who were sprawled out in sparse shade along tree groves on the National Mall.
“It's uplifting,” I later told my wife and son, who had spent their Saturday afternoon touring Ford’s Theatre. “But I’m sad that it's likely only a one-day story.” There have been so many marches; how can one more have an impact?
My day at the march stirred up memories of my involvement in several of those storied marches . My peers and I at Bronx High School of Science chartered a school bus to and from the November 1969 Vietnam Moratorium, I'd also surrounded the Pentagon to oppose President Reagan's Nicaraguan Contra War in the ‘80s, and more recently, marched in Manhattan to protest ICE abuses and advocate citizenship for undocumented immigrants. I joined the New York Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons' Hiroshima Peace Vigil at New York City's Dinkins Municipal Building three weeks ago. It's never enough but we all carry on.
“There have been too many times in history when people would not get up and march,” Larry Broun declared from behind a “Workers Circle: Jewish Culture for a Better World” banner that he and five friends held. “We in Jewish tradition are particularly aware of that. To us, freedom is like religion, so here we stand.”
“I marched behind you in Howard Beach (after the racial killings there), a turning point in my life,” I told Reverend Sharpton two years ago when he met with my Leaders High School students to discuss “What Makes Protest Effective?” My experience at Saturday’s March On For Voting Rights suggests that's still an open question.
Michael McQuillan, former U.S. Senate aide, Peace Corps volunteer and history teacher, chaired the N.Y.P.D. Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee and writes for The Write Launch, History News Network, Harlem World Magazine and his blog (https://mcquillan-unity-forum.squarespace.com)