More Than a March

On the morning of the March, no one knew what to really expect. The media gave it scant attention in the weeks leading up to it. At 7AM on the long-awaited day a reporter counted 10 people gathered by the Lincoln Memorial. 10! Would it be a bust? 
Organizers began to worry that their planning was for naught. Only the sight of 4,000 troops positioned in the nearby suburbs to quell any hints of violence made this morning seem unusual.

But as the rose began to shine over the National Mall, the rumbling sound of bus after bus could be heard in the distance. 2,000 of them, from all parts of the country, made their way to Washington. Organizers hoped for 100,000 attendees. Instead over a quarter of a million people found their way to the Lincoln Memorial.

That afternoon, on August 28, 1963, they heard the thunderous words of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. The now famous speeches along with the march itself have been etched into history. But how did they do it?

No email. No Facebook. No Twitter. No SMS (because there were no cell phones). They didn’t even have fax machines. All they had was a manual created by the brilliant March on Washington head organizer, Bayard Rustin. Rustin created a 12-page manual called “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The manual had everything an attendee would need — from where to park, what to pack, and where to use the bathroom. On the final page was an organizational RSVP that asked how many trains, buses, planes or cars your group planned to use and how many people you expected to come. It needed to be returned by mail. If there were any emergencies on the day of the march, the captain of each bus, train or plane was given a phone number to call. You can read the PDF here, of course back then it was hard copy only.

The march was decades in the making. First proposed during the FDR administration, it had been delayed again and again over the years. Now it was finally here, but the logistical planning was painstaking and time-consuming. The media was hesitant to cover the build-up to the march. It would be up to the marchers and organizers of to ensure a large turnout. Working at the grassroots level they went church to church, door to door, community center to community center, to spread the word.

They came for many reasons. Much of the South was governed by the Jim Crow laws that still segregated bathrooms, drinking foundations, public places and public transportation (nine years after Brown v. Board of Education, the South was still very much a segregated society). President Kennedy did not seem to have a path to pass a civil rights bill. Earlier that summer in Mississippi, Bull Conner used hoses and attack dogs on peaceful protestors that ignited a firestorm. Percy Lee Atkin, of Clarkdale, Mississippi told a reporter, “I came because we want our freedom. What’s it going to take to have your freedom?”

It has been estimated that over 60,000 of those who attended were white. Dr. King noted in his speech how large numbers of white people came to stand shoulder to shoulder with the African-Americans in the crowd. The passage of a civil rights bill was an issue of concern to many of them too. Arnold Shaw, who reported all day from the Lincoln Memorial, said, “One woman from San Diego, California, showed us her plane ticket. She said her grandfather sold slaves and she was here ‘to help wipe out evil.’”

Today, the same energy, effort, passion and turnout can be harnessed as well — with the push of a button.

By early evening in Hawaii, it was all but over. Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, had all gone for Donald Trump. Soon after Michigan and Wisconsin would as well.

Sitting in her home a retired attorney and grandmother, Teresa Shook, created a Facebook page calling for a march on Washington in demonstration of President Trump. That evening about 40 people responded that they would be interested in attending such an event. Shook was pleased, not a bad response. By the morning, over 10,000 had replied. And that was just the beginning. Soon over 125,000 and then over 3000,000 were interested in attending the event.

Others across the country had a similar idea s well including Bob Bland, a fashion-designer who created a line of “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” shirts. Bland’s idea was to call it the “Million Pussy March.”

Eventually the varying march concepts were merged into one and professional organizers took over its execution and implementation. The march was reconstituted as the “Women’s March on Washington,” as a way to connect it to the 1963 effort lead by Dr. King.

On the day Donald Trump was sworn-in there was little thought about the turnout for the march. Most of the conversation was about the less than stellar turnout for the new President. But 24 hours later, a sea of pink enveloped the National Mall. More people came to protest than came to see the inauguration (as an aside, that is not a knock on the new president. Much of his support came from rural communities, certainly outside the northeast corridor, yet the White House couldn’t handle the percieved slight and made a small issue turn into a big one).

The media did little to stir up attendance. The march was an afterthought in terms of coverage with the swearing-in of the new president billed, rightfully so, as the main attraction. As The Washington Post reported, there was only 1 front page story in the Post and New York Times on the march, which ran on January 3rd. The TV networks barely touched it. NBC and ABC ran one story each in the days leading up to the inauguration. ABC’s coverage was 18 words long.

Marcus Messner of Virginia Commonwealth University told the Washington Post, “The women’s marches were pretty much under the radar in most mainstream-media coverage over the last few weeks.” For this reason the media was surprised at the massive turnout. This was hardly the first time the media had failed to realize a momentous march was about to take place. But it was the first time that social media buzz was the main vehicle to drive up its attendance. Instead of relying on time-consuming grassroots organizing or media coverage to turn out protesters, today you just need to connect people who share the same zeal on social media.

And the protests were hardly limited to Washington. It was an international phenomenon. There were protests in all 50 states. In Fairbanks, Alaska where the mercury recorded a temperature of -15 degrees, 2,000 people protested. I took photos of my fellow protesters in NYC. All around the world from Sydney to London people made their voice heard. Well, almost all around the world. There was one place where no protests were recorded — Russia.

The ability to connect and collaborate is all part of The Great Convergence. I write about this in my book, The Business of Good. The Great Convergence has helped to shape the world in exciting new ways. It’s the ultimate disruptor. And now it’s being harnessed as a tool for those disaffected with the new occupant in the White House. 
 But for all its power, protests social media and organizing in general, are still secondary to the most powerful tool in democracy’s belt — voting. As of this writing, there are 650 days until the midterm election.

Do these protests spur action? In the summer of 1963, civil rights leaders gathered to push government forward on civil rights. A tumultuous year later, it was accomplished. And they did it without twitter.

Will today’s marchers be as successful in translating a day of protest into change? Don’t get against them. After all, look at all they have to work with.