Washington, D.C., was founded as a place apart—a place of sober and measured deliberation, physically and politically isolated from the rest of the nation. The capital’s role changed permanently, however, in 1894, when, during the worst economic depression the United States had yet endured, Jacob Coxey’s Army slogged 700 miles from Ohio to Washington to pressure Congress to pass a massive make-work program of national road building and to enact emergency currency reform. Although the causes have long since passed into obscurity, Coxey’s Army began the tradition of demonstrating for social change by marching on the capital. A century later, the Mall, the Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial have evolved into what Lucy G. Barber calls “national public spaces”—novel but apparently permanent destinations in American democracy.
Marching on Washington traces the process by which Americans redefined the capital as a place of public debate and protest. The book examines political protests, new social movements, changing ideas of citizenship and democratic rights, and the physical evolution of various spaces in Washington, D.C. All these developments reflect more than a century of tumult under the spotlights of the capital, in the process redefining Washington’s role in American politics.
Barber traces this shift through six major phases. Two decades after Coxey’s Army, Alice Paul and other female
suffragists staged a procession and pageant on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. (The disappointing outcome helped push Paul into a more militant strategy of picketing, arrests, and hunger strikes.) In 1932 the Bonus Army of 20,000 war veterans and their supporters converged on Washington, camped out, and lobbied Congress for their service bonuses, which were not due until 1945. During a stifling Washington summer, the protest became increasingly more radical and less patient; it was finally—and violently—suppressed by U.S. Army troops commanded by Douglas MacArthur.
The next two phases were inspired by the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph. While planning his 1941 Negro March on Washington, which aimed to abolish certain federal discriminations and to open more jobs for blacks in the burgeoning defense industries, Randolph decided to exclude white participants because he feared the influence and distractions of Communists. The march was canceled after Roosevelt agreed to issue an executive order addressing some of the protesters’ demands.
Then, in 1963, Randolph and his associate Bayard Rustin produced the epochal March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Its planning amounted to a summit conference of the leaders of the civil rights movement. In contrast to previous marches, this one was ambiguously encouraged by the White House; the Kennedy administration hoped its pressure would help overcome the congressional segregationists blocking civil-rights legislation. But this official support carried a price: John Lewis of SNCC was forced to moderate his speech, and the marchers carried only approved signs and slogans.
As a six-year-old in April 1971, Lucy Barber witnessed her first march on Washington, one of that spring’s demonstrations against the Vietnam War. (Her chapter on the antiwar protests has an immediacy missing from the rest of her book, which suffers from its origins as a doctoral dissertation; she worked under Brown historian James Patterson.) In the eight years between 1963 and 1971, other marches had made the tactic common, “an intrinsic part of American political culture,” writes Barber. That familiarity, she says, made it increasingly difficult for protesters to get on TV and achieve real impact. As a result, the 1971 protests triggered stiffening resistance from the Nixon administration. The result was the intentional anarchy and street theater of the Mayday protests, but this radical civil disobedience backfired as public opinion turned against the demonstrators.
Given her focus on the evolution of Washington as a public space, Barber does not always convey a full sense of the people involved: Carl Browne, Jacob Coxey’s cohort, for example, persuaded him that they both were reincarnations of Jesus Christ. Barber drops in this tantalizing tidbit but never develops it. Similarly, she mentions that the only woman among the top 1963 protest leaders was Anna Hedgeman, but we never learn who she was.
In general, though, this is a provocative, well-researched work of academic history. At a time of low voter turnout and widespread political apathy, it reminds us how past Americans have renewed and expanded their democracy.
Stephen Fox ’71 Ph.D. is a freelance historian. His new book, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, will be published by HarperCollins in July.