On Sunday, August 25, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins sat down for an interview on Meet the Press about the impending March on Washington. The first question forced the men to answer the charge that many believed it “impossible” for “100,000 militant negroes” to assemble without rioting. The second question asked what gains could possibly outweigh the risks of marching. The third question was “Don’t you think, though, that both the country and Congress itself are aware of the situation? Do you have to take the risks you are going to take in order to emphasize it?” The fourth question not-so-subtly accused the civil-rights movement’s leadership of communist infiltration. And the questions grew more skeptical from there.
The day after the march, there was a 1,300-word story about the event on the front page of The Washington Post. Neither the name “Martin Luther King Jr.” nor the phrase “I have a dream” appeared even once. Of the two-dozen stories the Post published about the March on Washington, Washington’s largest newspaper mentioned the title of the speech that would become one of the most famous in human history just once, on the bottom of A15. That same day, civil-rights leaders visited Capitol Hill and the White House to demand the inclusion of stronger enforcement and antidiscrimination provisions in the Kennedy administration’s already courageous and admirable civil-rights legislation. But a Time magazine story said that from politicians of both parties, “the visitors got polite words—and polite refusals.”
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington comes at a moment when America’s collective frustration with its capital has reached a fever pitch. The insular, myopic, self-serving nature of the city’s political class has left us deeply cynical about Washington’s ability to function in a way that reflects our founding values of liberty, equality, and opportunity.
But while the rot has certainly spread over the last few decades, recollections of the city’s tepid, skeptical reaction to the most important civil-rights march of all time remind me of a favorite saying: “Washington is always the last to get the news.” Or, as my former boss put it when he accepted the 2008 Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of the march, “the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”
This sentiment, which President Obama repeated hundreds of times during the eight years I worked for him, always generated more than a few snickers and eye rolls from the city’s pundits and political observers. One reporter said that the president committed his “biggest gaffe” in four years when he made the following observation during the 2012 campaign: “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”
The cynicism is understandable if you believe that President Obama’s campaign for change referred only to himself and his candidacy. And certainly, we embraced and perpetuated those comparisons in 2008, understanding that the election of a new, young, African-American senator from outside of Washington would by itself represent dramatic change.
But the president has always been careful to say that no one individual can change Washington, be it the most powerful politician on Earth or the most inspiring preacher known to man. Change—real change—requires a movement, and building a movement requires time. It requires the sustained commitment, courage, passion, and participation of millions of ordinary citizens.
This is not bullshit we fed ourselves for the purposes of a campaign. It is what many of us believe, deeply. It is true whether the aim is liberal change or conservative change. It was most famously true for the civil-rights movement, and it is undoubtedly one of the most important lessons that President Obama learned from Dr. King and the thousands who marched with him on Washington.
The perpetual coziness and close proximity to power, money, and the blood sport of politics may never position this city and all its dysfunction at the leading edge of a great movement for sweeping change. But as citizens, we always have the ability to build such a movement that forces Washington to respond. In fact, we are expected to.
We can make excuses. We can say that we are too busy or tired; too cynical or fed up. But 50 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans made a different decision. Most had fewer rights than we do. Most had fewer means than we do. Some had been humiliated and discriminated against and beaten within an inch of their lives by people whose job it was to protect them.
They came to Washington anyway. They drove, hitchhiked, and even walked—some for hundreds of miles over multiple days. They came from Boston and Los Angeles, Cleveland and Houston, Milwaukee and Mobile. And when the March on Washington was met with anxiety and skepticism by the Washington establishment, they kept on. As one account said, they kept on because “it was never about ‘me now,’ it was always about ‘someone someday.’ It could not have worked otherwise.”
That is the often-frustrating, patient hope of change in America—a hope that today’s anniversary should renew in every American.