For a few hours on Saturday, they were one nation under a groove as thousands of labor and progressive activists rallied for jobs, peace, and affordable education at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. With little time to spare before the November elections, more than 400 organizations, including the NAACP and dozens of national unions, organized "One Nation Working Together" to boost enthusiasm on the left and counteract the high-profile forces of reaction. According to many pundits, conservatives are poised to make strong gains in the November elections, undermining the possibility of progressive reforms. This past August, on the 47th anniversary of A. Philip Randolph's historic March on Washington for jobs and civil rights, right-wing populists Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin headlined a massive demonstration on the same spot intended to give focus to the white-hot anger that has emerged since Barack Obama's November 2008 election.
An hour before the scheduled noon start of Saturday's program, six burly and animated Cleveland-area autoworkers boarded the Washington Metro and chatted with curious passengers, who were surprised that they had not heard of the demonstration, but expressed support and provided tips on navigating the Metro system. Making their way across the Mall, the autoworkers brushed past canvassers representing various causes and socialist groups before joining their United Autoworkers sisters and brothers, who were easily identified by their Navy blue T-shirts. Other workers joined their respective seas of purple (Service Employees International Union), green (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and red (Communications Workers of America).
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were among the high-profile speakers at the demonstration. But singer and actor Harry Belafonte, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr.'s and a participant in the 1963 march, provided the sharpest rebuke of the Tea Party, accusing members of "moving perilously close to achieving villainous ends." Belafonte dubbed Saturday's gathering "America's wake up call" and an indication that "the giant called democracy is at last stirring again." Gregory Cendana, interim deputy director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, reminded the crowd of the interconnectedness of struggles for workers' rights and LGBT equality, immigrant justice and access to quality education.
For the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, Donna DeWitt, the demonstration could not have come a moment too soon. "We needed this infusion of energy," said DeWitt, noting that several young union members were ecstatic about having had the experience of marching in Washington. "Something big is going to come of this," she predicted. "The national labor leaders have seen the potential of this kind of mobilization." South Carolina activists packed six buses and made special efforts to include students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, according to DeWitt. Dozens of other union members living near the border traveled with North Carolina delegations. One bus from Charleston became a mobile classroom, as longshore worker Leonard Riley distributed packets of educational material provided by the national organization and led discussions on current workers' struggles and political issues facing the labor movement.
NAACP activists Mable and Brad Brown flew up from Miami to take part in the demonstration. As a former educator, Mable Brown said she supports all of the demonstration's stated goals, but is especially concerned about high unemployment, school reform, and police brutality in South Florida. According to the Browns, the Miami Branch NAACP sent a small delegation of young people to Washington, but that many more activists made the trip from northern Florida.
National unions and the NAACP did an impressive job of mobilizing their members who provide the Democratic Party with much of its activist base. Unaffiliated young progressives and white college students, however, were largely absent from Saturday's event. They will surely be out in greater numbers for the Oct. 30 "Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive" organized by Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but a demonstration combining forces would more closely mirror the winning coalition forged by the Obama campaign two years ago and would serve as an effective counterpoint to both the Republicans and the timid wing of the Democratic Party.
By 4:30 p.m., when most of the demonstrators were packed away on buses bound for the Bronx, Raleigh, and Rock Hill, funk legend George Clinton and friends assembled on stage at Lincoln's feet. Smiles broke out across the crowd and Abe's stone toes appeared to wiggle as Clinton ripped into his 1978 hit, "One Nation Under a Groove." After nearly 10 minutes of P-Funk, the simulcast screens went black and the engineers cut the sound system. Unfazed, Clinton's band segued into "Give Up the Funk," the strains of which could barely be heard just a few hundred feet away. It mattered little to the dancing stragglers -- black, white, Asian and Latino, gay and straight, old and young -- their insistent demand for "funk!" offering what may be the best response to this mean political season.
A history professor at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., Kerry Taylor co-chairs the board of directors at the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South.
(Photo by Kerry Taylor.)