WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, when Barack Obama joins former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the city’s most iconic moments: a stirring speech, a monumental movement, a march that has since become known simply as the March on Washington, as participants asked the government to do better by African American citizens. It eclipses all other marches with its cast of thousands of activists and supporters.
But another character will also be showcased, a supporting player in the history of not only the civil rights movement but also of all public protest in the nation. It will make no speeches but will be clearly visible on television screens, peeking out under the soles of presidential feet.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks is 1,004 acres, curving along the eastern shore of the Potomac River, nestled between Constitution and Independence avenues, between the Lincoln Memorial, where King stood and President Obama will stand, and the United States Capitol.
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Administered by the National Park Service, it is the site of nearly 3,000 public events annually: marches and rallies, protests and parades, America’s collective comment box to which hundreds of thousands of citizens trek each year, expressing how they feel the country has failed them. The grass turns brown from purposeful trodding. The Metro entrances burst with people carrying signs.
The March on Washington in 1963 “imposed a vision of what a perfect march was supposed to be,” says Lucy Barber, a Washington historian and author of “Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition.”
It wasn’t the first or only political gathering to be held on the Mall, though. For decades, the space has had a symbiotic relationship with public discourse in this country — it has shaped and been shaped by the issues of the day.
The first march on Washington — at least as we now tell the story of history — was Coxey’s Army, a pilgrimage of unemployed men in 1894. About 500 came to the District under the leadership of an Ohio businessman named James Coxey to lobby the government for jobs.
It wasn’t considered a march then; in fact, nobody really knew what to call it. “They sort of didn’t have a vocabulary for that kind of mass march,” Barber says. The vocabulary issue was a literal one: At that time, the form of civil engagement most familiar to the common man was mass petitions, signed by hundreds and then dropped off at government buildings. The idea of hordes descending upon Washington in person was difficult to conceptualize, so journalists eventually described Coxey’s Army not as a “march,” but using terminology everyone could understand: “Petition in Boots.”
“We now say that protests are covered in the First Amendment,” Barber says. But in the 19th century, many scholars didn’t think of public protest as the “freedom of assembly” intended in the Bill of Rights. “Assembly” was thought to refer to smaller group gatherings — in homes, in churches, in taverns — and not en masse, on malls.
Furthermore, the area that we now think of as the Mall looked very different than it does now. Although designer Pierre L’Enfant’s original vision for Washington had intended an open promenade extending from the Capitol, in the mid-19th century the space was cluttered with Civil War hospitals and a well-trafficked train station where President James Garfield was shot. “At one end of the ‘Mall,’” offers historian Paul Dickson, “you had a place called Murder Bay.”
By the time of Coxey’s petition in boots, the “Mall” was a series of gardens, woods and fishponds, resembling more a forest than anything else. The Washington Monument existed, but there wouldn’t have been a clear vantage point between it and the Capitol. Even if people had considered themselves free to assemble, metaphorically, there literally wouldn’t have been a place on the Mall to do it.
So Coxey’s Army did not march on the Mall. Instead, it marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, which was seen as a more important political statement than hanging out in the forest would have been. When people gathered for the next big protest, the women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913, they also walked down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pennsylvania Avenue was “what people saw as the seat of power,” Barber explains, because that’s where the inaugural parades were held and where the Grand Review of the Armies had taken place at the close of the Civil War.
The physical contours of the place shaped its cultural significance. A train station and some dense greenery impeded civic-minded individuals from achieving a grander symbolic purpose for the space. They simply couldn’t have seen the protest for the trees.
Even the Bonus Army — an assemblage of thousands of World War I veterans seeking promised payments who decamped to Washington in 1932 — was not, for the most part, located on the Mall. Their permanent camp was in Anacostia, and the most well-known skirmish, in which one veteran was killed and another fatally wounded, took place near the grounds of what is now the Canadian Embassy.
But Washington has always been a city of revision, a palimpsest, ghosts of things built on other things. The Surratt boardinghouse where President Lincoln’s assassination was planned is now a Chinese restaurant, “Murder Bay” is the U.S. Commerce Department and the rambling space extending from the U.S. Capitol is now the Mall.
In the early 20th century, Congress began implementing the McMillan Plan for the redesign of the Mall, which involved razing existing buildings and most of the trees.
Many local residents were outraged: The Mall area’s winding paths had provided a pleasant, shaded walking area. “But the idea was that the federal landscape was scattered,” says Kirk Savage, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies public monuments. Proponents of the McMillan Plan thought that the scattered landscape symbolized a scattered government. “There needed to be some strong symbolic statement of national unity, to tie together the White House, the Capitol and the Washington Monument.”
Despite complaints from residents, the McMillan Plan was completed in the 1930s: The area that had previously been used as more of a local park — the equivalent of, say, Rock Creek — was completely transformed. Now there were wide boulevards, empty spaces and a clear view of all the symbols of federal power.
“That became one of the central ironies,” Savage says.
“The people who came along to clear the Mall — they had absolutely no idea they were creating a space of protest.”
Post-McMillan, one could see from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, which was completed in 1922. The area became heavy with the symbolism it had lacked.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution banned Marian Anderson, the African American contralto, from performing an integrated concert at Constitution Hall. Instead, the singer staged a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial eight blocks away. More than 75,000 people attended.
The new Mall was already identified as a national space instead of a local one, Savage says — clearing away the paths preferred by Washingtonians had taken care of that. “But the Marian Anderson event was the first one that had a political charge to it.”
The stage of the Lincoln Memorial helped set the metaphorical stage for the Mall as a place for American citizens to vocalize the injustices of the day. Anderson opened the concert by singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Today, if you want to book a march or a protest on the Mall, the division in charge of processing the request is the National Park Service’s Office of Permits Management, a six-person staff housed in a building near the Jefferson Memorial on Ohio Drive. It processes 3,000 permits a year for nine federal parks in the region; the vast majority are for the Mall. In a typical year, about half of the permits are for special events and half are for what the department calls “First Amendments:” anti-abortion marches, Glenn Beck rallies, the Occupy movement, the Westboro Baptist Church.
“Our staff — they know the area backwards and forwards,” says Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the permits division. “They could tell you the location of any light switch, electrical outlet, irrigation system — they could tell you anything about the Mall.”
The division’s organizing system is a 6-foot-by-5-foot bulletin board on which hang monthly calendars, on which hangs a series of sticky notes. On one upcoming day, an Old Glory Honor Flight has booked the Marine Corps Memorial for an hour in the afternoon, the sidewalks along the Tidal Basin between 17th and 23rd streets have been cordoned off for something else, and the Mall’s center panels are booked between Fourth and 14th streets.
On each sticky note is a different celebration or grievance that Americans have chosen to celebrate or grieve in the heart of Washington, on public land.
“We’re the place where the massive demonstrations occur,” says Art Spitzer, legal director for the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Groups come to him when they are concerned about making sure their permits go through without a hitch. “Maybe New York City is the other contender,” Spitzer says, but many of New York’s big events are happy parades: St. Patrick’s Day, Gay Pride. Crowds assembling in tumult require a different sort of attention than crowds assembling in joy.
“These things require just an extraordinary amount of planning and preparation,” says Spitzer, who has sat in on these planning sessions. “You have the Park Police,” he begins to tick off. The Capitol Police. The Secret Service. The Virginia Department of Transportation. The Maryland Department of Transportation. The Red Cross. RFK Stadium might get involved for parking. Metro sometimes needs to open early. George Washington University Hospital might feel it’s very important that the route to the emergency room not be blocked.
He thinks a little more.
“Oh,” Spitzer remembers. “And the rent-a-potty people.”
These sorts of details are enough to make one feel tenderly toward the government. The idea of multiple departments moving together in a bureaucratic ballet illustrates one of America’s more endearing quirks: Federal employees will work their fingers to the bone ensuring that you have the right to tell them how disappointed you are in the system that employs them.
The Office of Permits Management doesn’t keep a master list of all the protests that have taken place on the Mall. A perusal of Wikipedia’s list of historical protests (read it with a grain of salt), however, is fascinating. Before the March on Washington, events were scheduled sporadically: Two decades separated Coxey’s Army from the Suffrage Parade. But after the March, events began to rapidly increase: Every year, even every few months, groups headed to the location that has become the symbolic center of the country’s political process.
King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech” raised the bar for public addresses, ushering in the concept that all Mall marches should be accompanied by stunning speeches. The large attendance also helped turn future Mall protests into a numbers game: If your march didn’t attract tens of thousands of people, there must be something wrong with it.
But more than transforming our views of public protest, the March on Washington, and its forebears, helped to transform the space of the Mall.
Once it was the nebulous space extending from the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, in the direction of the White House. Now it is the nation’s public square, the nexus of two interpretations of what it means to live in the United States, one political, one pastoral.
James Baldwin said: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks.”