THE POLITICS OF MARCHING
Marching has played an important role in the African American tradition of dissent. One of the first acts of the emancipated slave was to walk. Caught up in the emotion that was their new-found freedom, some slaves walked to find lost siblings.6 Others moved about aimlessly, enjoying the freedom of movement and self-possession. But the intrusion of these free black bodies into public space disrupted the way that space was organized.
For generations, the South and the North responded to this disruption by organizing public space in a way that would limit the movement of black bodies. The black codes, laughing barrels, and Jim and Jane Crow were all visible markers of how we were to comport ourselves in a domain that was not ours. The power of these black bodies, formally organized, walking arm-in-arm, and singing derived, in part, from the racist organization of the public domain. The peaceful interruption of that disciplining space by the mere movement of black bodies gave "the March" its subversive power.
No wonder marching has been so much a part of our dissenting tradition. When something major happened on a local, state, or national level, we marched. We gathered up ourselves and invaded the public domain, expecting the invasion to yield results. But it was not always the case that our public display addressed the State. We often gathered to celebrate. Pinkster celebrations, Juneteenth gatherings, and July 5th picnics, just to name a few, were all public displays. Many of these celebrations had parades in which a cross-section of the black community would march through town. Drill teams would show off their new steps. Civic organizations would display themselves to the town. This, of course, was not about the State, but it was certainly an invasion: black bodies acting out in a public domain circumscribed by a racist culture.
The Garvey movement presents an example of black bodies transgressing racialized spatial boundaries. Marcus Garvey understood the importance of dramatic display. Black people, Garvey believed, needed to see pomp and circumstance from their own; it would instill in them a sense of pride and patriotism. His organization often marched through the streets of Harlem with drill teams, banners proclaiming the glory of the black nation and Garvey himself dressed in full imperial garb. Significantly, Garvey did not necessarily feel he was addressing the American nation-state. Rather, his parades were meant to reflect his focus on the formation of the black nation. Celebratory marches, then, were only symbolic articulations of Garvey’s nationalist politics. They did not constitute political engagement in the traditional sense of the phrase.
The Million Man March, on the other hand, conflated two distinctive modes of marching. It conflated the symbolism of black bodies acting out with the politics of black bodies marching for social change. The March did not evoke Garveyism, and it was only superficially akin to the 1963 March on Washington, notwithstanding Minister Farrakhan’s attempt to make the comparison: "I was visiting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as we watched [Martin Luther King’s] 1963 March on Washington. . . . He said that he saw too much frivolity, joking, and a picnic atmosphere. He said, ‘One day, Brother, I will call for a March on Washington.’" Farrakhan’s answer to the frivolity and joking was apparently to march not for civil rights legislation but, rather, to atone for the sins of the black nation. In other words, the March was convened not to address the actual policies of the nation-state (e. g., welfare reform or minimum mandatory sentencing) like the March on Washington in 1963 but, rather, to address black men. Why they were on the steps of the Capitol instead of the streets of Harlem or Southeast D. C. is beyond us.
Well, not really. Everybody marches on Washington these days— women’s groups, gay and lesbian organizations, children’s rights advocates, environmentalists. Yet it is less than clear that marching remains an effective means of black political expression, notwithstanding its growing popularity. Our point here is simply this: A form of protest that once had power for a particular community precisely because of the way in which public space was organized is no longer a persuasive vehicle for social and political argument. In the post-jim crow era, movement of black bodies loses its subversive potential because, legally, African Americans can walk anywhere they want. We suppose proving to the nation that black men can gather together and not kill one another or destroy property in the process is important, but we still hold that it is not equivalent to the power of the march in the context of racial segregation. Moreover, a march that looks like it is addressing the State—calling people from around the nation to D. C. and addressing hundreds of thousands of black folk from the steps of the Capitol— and doesn’t, compounds the problem. Why march to the nation’s capital unless you are going to say something about its policies? This problem, we believe, rests in the rhetorical stance of the Nation of Islam—an organization that, until recently, condemned America to destruction.