U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The 1983 March on Washington and the Age of Reagan

Recently Ben Alpers asked some pertinent questions about the study, or lack thereof, of Roots by historians seeking to understand the 1970s. Thinking back to that era also has me curious, but about a different cultural and political event: the 1983 March on Washington. Ostensibly to commemorate 20 years since the March on Washington of 1963, “March on Washington II”, as it was called in the pages of Ebony magazine and elsewhere, was an event in its own right. To understand it is to think deeper about the ideological debates occurring in the 1980s, as well as to understand how  activists and intellectuals viewed, and used, memory of the 1960s in 1980s debates about  race in American society.

By 1983, African American activists and others on the Left were entrenched in constant protest and agitation against President Ronald Reagan. The frustrations with President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s turned into outright hostility against President Reagan in the 1980s. At the same time, questions of who, exactly, was leading Black Americans in the 1980s raged among Black intellectuals. It was a problem that stretched back to the late 1960s, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. David Chappell’s book Waking From the Dream does a wonderful job of talking about that vacuum in Black leadership after King’s death, with figures such as Ralph Albernathy and Jesse Jackson, at different points, attempting to take on that mantle but never quite pulling it off. The year 1983, which was the twentieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech offered a chance to consider how far African Americans had come in those two decades, while also providing the opportunity to rally for new battles around race.

Jackson is critical to any understanding of the 1983 March. By August 1983, talk of Jackson running for President was becoming a hot talking point, especially among those on the Left. It was also important among other moderate Democrats, who feared a Jackson campaign in the 1984 Democratic primaries would weaken the party before it faced the uphill challenge of trying to unseat President Reagan. The very question of what the Left should be doing, however, perplexed the activists who were trying to tap into a spirit of remembrance about the Civil Rights Movement and use it for political ends in the 1980s. Don’t forget, also, that 1983 was the year of the rough Chicago mayoral race, in which race (and accusations of racism) became a hallmark.

Manning Marable’s analysis of the 1983 March on Washington in the pages of Black Scholar makes for interesting reading. His review of the March begins, in fact, with the March on Washington Movement of 1941, which pressured President Roosevelt into signing Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination based on race in defense plants. For Marable, the three Marches (or attempted marches) of 1941, 1963, and 1983, had differences, but were united by showing the power of Black political power in the United States. Marable argued that the 1983 March came about due to three factors that he considered “represent(ed) a qualitatively new set of problems for the Black Freedom Movement.”[1] Marable argued that economic problems since 1973; the turn to conservatism that he referred to as “Reaganism” and defined as “a political response by the most reactionary and racist sectors of monopoly capital to the present economic and social crisis”; and finally “manifestations of random and institutional racist violence, vocal opposition to affirmative action, desegregation and civil rights laws.”[2]

This analysis of the early 1980s is something that can be glimpsed in Marable’s history of the era in his book Race, Reform, and Rebellion and was a hallmark of the Leftist tendencies of Black Scholar magazine. His analysis is a window into how the American Left saw the necessity of the March, and the need for the March to tackle many of the issues embraced by Leftists and liberals in the 1980s. The question of what to do about the problems Marable wrote about, however, was one that elided easy answers. For example, in the build up to the March, none other than Bayard Rustin opposed the idea of a new, big March on Washington campaign. Rustin, along with Norman Hill of the AFL-CIO, were both concerned about the costs of the march, whether they could draw hundreds of thousands of people to a new march, and if marchers could maintain lawful behavior during the march.[3] Rustin wasn’t the only major Black leader concerned about the march. Members of the NAACP worried about the ability to pull off such a march. The National Urban League did not officially back the march, and Marable pointed to the Urban League’s attempt to draw corporate support for its organization as a key reason why they wouldn’t back the new March.

The biggest problem with the March, however, may have been a perceived lack of focus for the March’s message. The New Republic noted this issue right after the March ended, and they blamed it on a “malaise in the black leadership” since King’s death, which was due to what they called “the absence of a vivid moral vision.”[4] What the editors of the magazine could not understand, and which Left activists and academics such as Marable took for granted, was how so many disparate topics—racism, poverty, arms control, wars in Central America—could be combined into one march. “Surely it is another case of manipulation and exploitation of blacks with their organizational needs by whites with their organizational agenda. What, after all, has a speech given in behalf of the Democratic Revolutionary Front of El Salvador got to do with Dr. King’s message of nonviolence?”[5]

That’s an important question, one that speaks to how the Left of the 1980s was taking on a variety of issues that appeared, to outside observers, as a hodge-podge of pet issues for various activists. It does, however, show that the editors themselves either forgot or ignored King’s own opposition to Vietnam in the late 1960s, and his attempts to tie the Vietnam War to the failures of the War on Poverty at home, as well as the persistent racism in society that King saw as still entrenched in America. But, of course, this all comes down to memory. The memory of the 1960s was also fresh in the minds of New Republic editors who argued that the 1983 March, if it had any positive aspects, was the lack of Black Nationalism present. “At least one thing can be said for this motley collection of issues, causes, and allies,” the editors began. “This year’s march does show that “black nationalism” or separatism is for all intents and purposes dead…The phenomena of mau-mauing, of guilt-tripping white liberals, of separatist fantasies, of dashiki-clad jive—these have pretty much run their course. The dream of integration may have lost much of its luster, but the dream of separation has lost even more.”[6] This is an assumption that Black Nationalism would keep the same form in the 1980s it had in the 1960s. And this isn’t to pick on The New Republic at all, as I find their analysis of the March to be an important one in considering how many Americans remembered the 1960s. But consider the words of Daniel Rodgers on race, African Americans, and the later years of the twentieth century: “Their sign in the last quarter century was a new radical assertiveness: a claiming of collective African American pride and place across a broad spectrum of American cultural, intellectual, and political life.”[7] That argument, which I think is an important one presented by Rodgers and other intellectual and cultural historians of the 1980s, is why studying the March on Washington II is so important. I’ll come back to this March at some point in the near future, but for now I’d like to think about this and other events of the 1980s and how they add to our understanding of the political and intellectual history of the Age of Reagan.

Also–I wanted to let everyone know that this coming weekend, myself and Matthew J. Linton will be posting our remarks on the new book by Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Mr. Linton’s post will go up Saturday, and my own reflections next Sunday.

[1] Manning Marable, “Jobs, Peace, Freedom: A Political Assessment of the August 27 March on Washington.” Black Scholar, p. 2-20, November/December 1983, Vol. 14, No. 6. Quote on pg. 3.

[2] Marable, 3-4.

[3] Marable, 7.

[4] “March to Nowhere,” The New Republic, September 19/26, 1983, p. 7-10, quote on pg. 8

[5] “March to Nowhere,” p. 8.

[6] “March to Nowhere,” p. 8

[7] Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture, p. 113-114.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    This is such rich material–you bring out so many different angles and contexts and give such a full sense of the conflicts over the 1983 March. But I wonder if I can ask you to speak to another potential set of contexts–did Marable or the New Republic or news reports of the March acknowledge any other precedents or parallels besides the 1963 March? That is, in the intervening years, there had been many marches on Washington, for all kinds of reasons, and some of them were of quite impressive size. (Wikipedia actually has a great list.) Did any of these–the 1979 march for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the 1978 ERA march, etc.–come up at all?

    • I’m glad you brought this up, because I looked for this in my materials and didn’t see much. Now, I need to check some of the notes I gathered from the New Republic, Newsweek, and some other sources because the one march that was mentioned in conjunction with this one was an anti-Nuclear weapons march from either ’82 or ’83.

      Plus the wonderful book “Front Porch Politics” by Michael Stewart Foley does a good job of talking about the sheer number of demonstrations in this time period. The 1983 March on Washington, however, isn’t mentioned in that book. And to be honest I’d never heard of the march until I read Chappell’s “Waking from the Dream”. But there was little in the coverage I’ve seen so far about other marches in that era. With that said, I’ll take a look at some of the sources I had to leave on the cutting room floor one last time.

      • Thanks, Robert! It was just a stab–perhaps historians simply think about these kinds of parallels (beyond the necessary one of the 1963 March) but journalists don’t–or didn’t. And thanks for the reference to Front Porch Politics–I’ve been meaning to check it out!

  2. Robert: Did The New Republic piece have an author? Or was it unsigned? I ask because of the hostility of the quote—i.e. the assumption of homogeneity within Black Nationalism, the distraction of the aesthetics of the movement, the guilt-trip line, etc. – TL

    • No author, unsigned. Yet I can’t say I was totally surprised. I’ve only perused some of the New Republic from the 1980s, but most it seems to have the same focus on the Black family, concern about 80s excesses, and other items in that same vein.

  3. Adolph Reed wrote about the 1983 March either in The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon or in Stirrings in the Jug. Reed’s analysis is much more biting than Marable’s is, but much more insightful.

    • I was hoping Reed chimed in on this–I’ll definitely check that out ASAP. Thanks for letting me know! Adolph Reed’s one of those figures who can’t be forgotten when it comes to recent intellectual history, especially the intellectual history of the American Left. Plus, he doesn’t hold back in his writing.

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