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August 26, 2013

In the Reflecting Pool: The March on Washington and the Diminishing Space for Public Protest

Leffler Feet in Reflecting Pool 63 March LOC

Kathleen Johnson reflecting pool 63 AP

Looking at these image from the original March on Washington in ‘63, as well as those just below from ‘83, what is simultaneously natural and striking is how the people have access to their national grounds.

Freed 83 March Reflecting Pool capitol

Freed March on Washington 83 Magnum

Freed 83 Reflecting Pool Reagan protesters

Refreshing and rejuvenating, baptismal or performative and transgressive, even, it is fitting, dignifying and eloquent that citizens — especially in the context of civil rights — freely access the reflecting pool.

Looking at the photos from this weekend’s 2013 anniversary in contrast, the visual and physical shift in the civic and expressive relationship to democratic space is shocking to me.

Fence around reflecting pool

Richards Reflecting Pool 13

Richards Getty March on DC 13 Still a Man

If the middle photo of this last grouping is a powerful representation of how much public assembly and public expression has been bounded, the last photo is even more concerning.  Yes, the citizens, their signs advocating for greater rights and expanded freedoms, are penned in. But I’m also thinking about the “I am a man” poster. As a key civil rights phrase originating from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and an enduring affirmation,  the word “still” in this context is to strengthen the original phrase and intent, highlighting the continuity of the ideal. In an ironic twist, however — and one that contradicts decades of struggle for advancement — the phrase can be seen to relate to the bounded condition. As in: I am still a man, although here on this Mall in 2013, I am this confined.

(photo 1: Warren K. Leffler. August 28, 1963. Library of Congress. photo 2: AP. caption: Kathleen Johnson of Newark, N.J. gets help from unidentified members of the crowd assembled near the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March On Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Mrs. Johnson fell into the reflecting pool near the memorial while trying to take a photograph of the area. photos 3, 4 & 5: Leonard Freed/Magnum –  Washington, DC. 1983. caption: Twenty years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, marchers from all over the country thronged before the Lincoln Memorial to hear it honored. photo 6: Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images. caption: A fence is built surrounding the reflecting pool on the National Mall in preparation for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington celebrations in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2013. The National Mall will be host to the Action to Realize the Dream March and ‘Jobs, Justice and Freedom’ Rally as well as the Global Freedom Festival on Saturday August 24, 2013. photos 7 & 8: Paul J. Richards /AFP/Getty Images. caption: Thousands of people line the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial while listening to speakers at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech on August 24, 2013, in Washington, DC.)

  • LanceThruster
  • black_dog_barking

    Stunning. These images show with stunning clarity the direction and magnitude of change that our generation has wrought upon the commons. “Of the people” “for the people” has become “separate from the people”. A national pond that provided a bit of soothing relief on a hot afternoon is now a pristine symbol separate and distinct from those for whom the symbol is supposed to work.

    Interesting that a small slogan on one of the monochrome signs — “Cut the Military” — voices a thought now so politically impossible that it hasn’t even occurred to me since the early 1990s. And only now, looking at these images from the early 60s and early 80s, does it finally occur to me that the relatively short period of time separating the fall of the Berlin wall and the buildup and invasion of Iraq may not be totally coincidental.

  • Stan B.

    And this is relatively benevolent, in some instances demonstrators have been herded and corralled blocks from the actual event (before being harassed, beaten, arrested, detained, etc) .

  • Jacqui Credo Nia Dowdell

    Even the Washington is off limits during this anniversary. We are so use to gated communities that we don’t challenge the barricades.

  • Pingback: March on Washington | Deep in the well

  • Katie

    It’s probably worth noting that a large part of the heightened security in 2013 is due to the fact that, since 3 presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton & Barack Obama) were speaking at Wednesday’s program, security fell to the Secret Service–which isn’t usually the case for protests/marches in DC. Even so, the disparity is nuts.

    • Eric

      Hmmm. 1) You can control access to the area without establishing a perimeter around the reflecting pool. Historically this is how it’s always been handled. 2) Also, let’s think back to the march in 1963. The city was essentially on lock down. Sports events were cancelled. Bars and liquor stores closed. Federal employees were told to take the day off. The entire D.C. police force was mobilized, along with 500 reserves and 2,500 members of the National Guard. Organizers also had their own force of almost 2000 parade marshals, mostly black police officers. In addition, a Department of Justice official was seated right next to the sound system with a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which he was prepared to play after taking over control of said sound system, in case things got too rowdy. In 1963 ~250,000 people marched without a single incident. In 2013, ~20,000.

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