Episode

8/22 Eddie S. Glaude Jr: The 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

August 22, 2013

Princeton Professor, Eddie S. Glaude Jr, explained the roots of the March on Washington, Malcolm X’s original critique of the march, how mainstream America has co-opted the Civil Rights Movement, how the left has been marginalized, why the Obama Administration’s failures to hold banks accountable undermines King’s social justice tradition, the intersection between social progress and economic justice and is the end of Black America?

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Read the full transcript of Sam’s interview with Professor Eddie Glaude below. Transcription services provided by Rev.com.

Sam: We are back. Sam Seder on the Majority Report. On the phone, it’s a pleasure to welcome back to the program, Professor Eddie Glaude. He is a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton. Welcome back to the program, Professor.
Eddie: It’s always a pleasure to [dial up 00:06:50] with you, Brother Sam. It’s exciting.
Sam: Now, we are on the cusp of a 50-year-anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It’s … The March is, I think at this point, most famous for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Put this into context for us … before because I want to talk about how this march was developed, and get into how, in some respects, there’s been … I don’t know if it’s fair to say revisionist history of what the meaning of the march was, but certainly it’s been filtered in some way. Put it in context for us.
Eddie: Sure. Well, I think it’s important to think, to understand the history of the March on Washington. It comes out of the March on Washington Movement, which lasted from 1941 to about 1946, and was rooted in the efforts of A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, and others. A. Philip Randolph, one of the organizers of the Black Pullman Porters, and alongside Chandler Owen in New York, was a part of a black labor movement, in some ways a cornerstone of a black labor movement; Bayard Rustin, of course, coming out of an organizing tradition of friendship, fellowship … Quaker tradition, a pacifist tradition. It has its origins in this effort to push the President to respond to the economic circumstances of black folks.
There was this desire to push Franklin Delano Roosevelt to really respond to the dire circumstances of black folk in the country. It was supposed to be a massive mobilization in which black folk and their friends would come and in some ways occupy DC to bring pressure to bear on the federal government to address the circumstances of everyday ordinary folks. That movement was extended and Bayard Rustin brought it into 1963 as a part of the Civil Rights Movement, and initially it was supposed to be a massive sit-in of everyday ordinary folk, of black workers, of poor people, of share croppers, to bring attention to the devastation that took place in the South, to bring attention to the movement that was going on in the South.
It was supposed to be a massive act of civil disobedience, Sam. The story, of course, Malcolm X has the famous description of the March on Washington as the Farce on Washington, that the federal government realized, Kennedy realized, that this was going to be a massive act of civil disobedience, decided to get in front of it, and in some ways transformed it, or redirected it to become a kind of mobilization in support of Legislation that would eventually be the Civil Right Act of 1964.
Sam: That’s the part …
Eddie: It has this radical origin. Then, it gets transformed.
Sam: Yeah. That’s the part that really fascinates me. To a certain extent, we see how that has reverberated through the decades. The … I think in common parlance, it’s referred to the March on Washington. That part about “For Jobs and Freedom” gets lost here. It was … I think it was on Twitter when you had mentioned that you were thinking about Malcolm X’s perspective on this. From his autobiography, he really talks … He discusses this march in the context of really cooptation in many respects. Is …
Eddie: Right. It’s really bizarre in this sense that again it was supposed to be a massive act of civil disobedience, to call attention to the prevalence of discrimination in the South and throughout the country. It was, in some ways, not only coopted, but absorbed, and we can see that now. Look at it. President Obama will be speaking on the 28th …
Sam: [crosstalk 00:11:14]
Eddie: … and the Lincoln Memorial, unlike the previous presidents. I would prefer him to be, perhaps, speaking in the well of Congress pushing the jobs bill to respond to the devastating unemployment figures in Black America, or I would prefer him pushing Legislation from the White House as J. F. Kenney was trying to do … actually working politically as opposed to getting in front of this memorialization. It is a kind of example of the way in the March on Washington has come to symbolize, Sam, the goodness of America. We’ve come so far, and now we’re going to celebrate where we are, and hopefully folks will call attention to the crisis that is engulfing Black America at this moment as opposed to simply patting themselves on the back.
Sam: Yeah, that is the part that really, I think … That dynamic is one that I think is really playing out in our political consciousness because we’re at a time where there was reports out today about wage stagnation. African Americans and the poor have suffered even greater over the course of this recession than obviously the wealthy and white folk. It seems that there is … There’s a certain amount of frustration that I imagine … that I feel in that we’re talking about focusing on this notion, and certainly there’s plenty, I think, to be proud of in terms of what has happened in this country.
There’s certainly things to celebrate in so far as, I don’t know, 50 years ago. It seems, actually when we say it, really a long time ago to imagine the first African American President. At the same time, we’re dealing with problems that seem to be perennially swept under the rug, which is … and in fact, in some ways have been exacerbated when we talk about economics.
Eddie: Well, Sam. Part … and you know this. I’ve been following you for so long. I think you feel the same way that I feel. That is that there has been a marginalization of genuine progressive and radical tradition in the United States, that what stands in for a radical voice, a progressive voice, is really a center-left voice. This is really taking place within the context of the black freedom struggle and how we narrate that struggle in the current moment. What we really have standing in for the best of the black freedom struggle in the US is a black liberal narrative, which really takes as its point of departure, a baseline inclusion into the status quo.
What we see as the result of that is that folks who are on the margins, folks who are in the shadows, get left out. Part of what we do know is that we still have double-digit unemployment in African American communities. Some place … In some areas, it’s not just simply 13%. Nationally, in some areas, it’s close to 18%. Some areas, when we talk about African American men, it’s close to 50%. When we think about what happened in the Foreclosure Crisis, that really has had, at its root, a discriminatory practice in terms of black folk and brown folk being pushed to these subprime loans.
We see that the devastation in terms of just simply the loss of homes. When we see who’s on … who’s taking advantage of food stamps, who’s taking advantage of government assistance as they try to cut it, particularly in relation to sequestering. You see black women and black children suffering disproportionally, black and brown children, poor people suffering disproportionally. It becomes a very difficult thing to stomach when we find ourselves in this celebratory mode when we see so much suffering in the nation.
Sam: This is …
Eddie: Part of what we have to do in this moment around the celebration of the March on Washington is call attention to not only what was present, but what was absent, what is absent in that celebration. People focus on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and they really just reduce it to the “I Have a Dream” portion of it, which was really something he had a … he’s [inaudible 00:16:05], that he had been delivering prior to that moment such that Mahalia Jackson can yell to him during the speech, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” which is this performative moment. Before he gets to that, what is he saying? “We’ve come to cash a check.”
He’s talking about jobs. He’s talking about discrimination. He’s talking about structural realities that limit the life chances of people of color. What do we need to … I’m sorry. I’m going on-and-on, Sam. [crosstalk 00:16:31]
Sam: No, no, no. I … This is … I’m sitting here, nodding, because to a certain extent, I have been wrestling with this ambivalence. When it was announced this morning that Eric Holder is going to be speaking there … On one hand, I think the Department of Justice has been pretty good on balance, and maybe even beyond that, in terms of voting rights and dealing with the intense push by the Republicans to disenfranchise black people from voting, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court. On the other hand, not only were black folk steered into subprime mortgages; there was a conscious effort to prey on people in black communities, particularly poor communities, who were not financially literate, where the mortgage services took advantage of them, and we have seen virtually nothing.
Eddie: Nothing.
Sam: Virtually nothing.
Eddie: Nothing.
Sam: … from the administration, from Eric Holder, who was in the position to do all of these things, and to hold these mortgage services, these banks, to account. I have this intense ambivalence. When I read … We read Malcolm X on this March, where he talks about Kennedy had brought to the White House the leaders of some of the biggest black organizations at the time and said, “Look. I’m a little concerned about this. Do you guys have control of this?” They said, “Well, actually. This is not us.” There’s this move to coop this energy, and funnel in a way that is manageable in some fashion.
Eddie: Well you think about … Think about what presses as this moment. We have the George Zimmerman verdict, and you remember what happened. You had this amazing expression of discontent, of anger, of rage. You saw this amazing grass roots mobilization across the country as people took to the streets to give voice to their own sense that the criminal justice was in fact, and remains decidedly biased when it comes to young black men and women, or black men and women generally. You saw this and then what happens to him. The President came out and gave a speech, had the press conference. For 3, 4, news cycles, it’s all what people were talking about.
Then, suddenly Sharpton, who had called for all of these marches, said, “Okay. Let’s just focus our attention now on the 24th and the 28th. We’re going to bring all of this.” All of this grass roots energy that was expressed was … The energy had been sucked out of the room, except for the Dream Defenders down in Florida. You had this moment, and then President Obama steps forward, and then the moment becomes all about him. What do we get from this? We see that any statistical measure, Sam, under this presidency, black life has not improved. In fact, it has gotten worse, by any statistical measure. The only thing that we hear from President Obama’s defenders is that if it wasn’t for him, it would be even worse. That’s the kind of baseline response.
We’ll get the standard narrative of what he’s done for black folks, and that he’s the President for all of America. What you see very clearly, in my view, is the demobilization of a black radical tradition. As all of the energies get sucked up into this standard liberal narrative about the black freedom struggle, which eventuates in President Obama’s ascendency, or whether it’s Attorney General Holder’s presence in the Justice Department. Well, on the ground, everyday ordinary people are suffering in unimaginable ways. Part of what we have to do … and what I love about this segment in your show, and what you always do, is that we have to activate progressive energies.
We have to call attention to the absences that will be glaring in this memorialization and celebration of the 50th anniversary. Not only did Malcolm X describe this as the Farce on Washington. Remember, on the eve of the March on Washington, Sam, we will be celebrating the 50th … or recognizing the 50th anniversary of W. E. B. Dubois. Dubois, that powerful African American intellectual, quit America. He died in Ghana. He actually sent a letter. He actually sent word not to be duped by the March, that we had to link our struggle against racial discrimination to a struggle for economic justice.
Economic justice rooted, not just simply in a certain Capitalist imagination, but economic justice rooted, Brother Sam, in the sense that everyone should have the ability to earn a decent living and to provide a … put a home over their head, a roof over their head, and the like. I don’t want to get on my little pedestal here, but the March on Washington, the commemoration is doing political work. We need to understand clearly what kind of political work this commemoration is doing.
Sam: Exactly.
Eddie: As progressives, we have to intervene and we have to re-narrate this moment. We have to tell a different story about what this march actually represents.
Sam: It’s … My audience is quite familiar with this, and I quote this often, but back in 2008, my co-host at the time, Marc Maron, had a comedian … had a great and sadly prescient joke about President Obama, that this is a historic occasion. Finally, African American people are finally going to have the opportunity to be screwed by one of their own. Sadly, it was …
Eddie: Indeed.
Sam: … It was, in many respects, very prescient. When we talk about this … I think this is exactly … This is exactly why I wanted to talk you about this, this intervention into who owns and dictates the narrative of both what the original March on Washington was about and even the impetus for that march, or everything that preceded that march, and who owns it now. You mentioned Sharpton. It’s actually Sharpton’s national action network that has appropriated this march, and to the extent that it’s actually called the National Action to Realize the Dream. From my estimation, Al Sharpton, putting aside whether or not he should be the idea of coopting this, but he has been one of President Obama’s greatest defenders in terms of not speaking to these issues of really of economic justice.
It is … How does one go about doing this? When you see the cooptation that happened back in 1963 or ’64, I guess … in the years, months …
Eddie: Sixty-three, right. Sixty-three [crosstalk 00:24:20].
Sam: … leading up to it. How … Now, when this has almost been … It is. It’s packaged as a media event. It’s hard to find the line between where this is happening in terms of mobilizing people and this being an extension of a special that MSNBC is holding.
Eddie: Man, you hit it right on the head. It’s hard. It’s hard to stay away from the liquor cabinet in these times.
Sam: Exactly.
Eddie: It’s really dark out here. In some ways, the march is going to be a coronation of Reverend Sharpton, and I’ve worked with Reverend Sharpton in the past on his radio show as a commentator. I’ve been profoundly disappointed in the way in which, to put it crudely, he’s situated himself as carrying Obama’s water in relation to the devastation that’s taken place in the community. Part of the work that we have to do, Sam, is exactly what you’re doing. That is, we have to re-narrate. We have to find venues … because of the fragmentation of the media market, we can do all sorts of things to begin to tell different sorts of stories. Understand that it’s going to be difficult to break through the white noise, to break through the overarching narrative that’s being put out there.
We have to do this sort of work. We have to do this sort of grunt work. I bring this up because part of what’s so beautiful about the March on Washington in ’63, and the March on Washington Movement from ’41 to ’46, is that it reflects the best of the organizing tradition. Folk have to ask the question, “How did all these folk get there?” It wasn’t just because somebody put out a call on … They didn’t have MSNBC. Somebody had to organize. Folk were organizing in their local communities. Folks were engaged in the on-the-ground grunt work, trying to mobilize their communities to respond to the conditions of the day.
What’s beautiful about the March on Washington, even in ’63 when it was coopted by King, is that it was clear evidence that the nation, hundreds of thousands of people, black and white, came together and in a public moment declared that Jim Crow in the South was wrong, was evil. To that extent, that’s a good thing. Part of what we have to do is begin to lift up that organizing tradition, lift up the possibilities of genuine interracial coalition, and begin to give voice to what that needs to look like, what that might look like in our current moment.
All that’s to say that we’re going to be doing that against a very strong headwind. I can only tell you, man, it’s very difficult to have the kind of criticism that I have, or the critique that I have, in this moment. People will jump on you and call you a traitor, and say that you’re just hating. [inaudible 00:27:14]
Sam: I … well that is … Well, it’s interesting because there are two points here. I want to get to that interracial coalition because on some level we saw … I think at least in New York. If I remember correctly, it was Occupy that first organized the first Hoodie March, at least in New York, where there was an attempt to draw the economic issues into a broader narrative. Before we get to that, I want to go back because when we talk about this cooptation of a radical tradition within African American politics … Prior to the election, we had Glen Ford on from Black Commentator. He was arguing that … His greatest argument, I think, was that President Obama was even … because using the formation of a lesser of two evils, which I certain subscribe to on an array of issues relative to Mitt Romney.
He said that President Obama was not the lesser of two evils, but a more perfect evil in the sense that he was coopting this energy from a tradition of black progressivism, black radicalism, to the detriment of the broader progressive radical struggle in terms of economics. You’ve hinted at that that those type of claims, those type of perspectives, are very difficult to articulate within the context of the black community because … and for some reasons that are obvious. Talk a little bit more about that because I think …
Eddie: I’m sorry.
Sam: No. Go ahead.
Eddie: It’s hard. I think it’s hard for a number of different reasons. We have to be careful in how we make this point because, in some ways, what happens is that people become so Obama-obsessed that it short-circuits nuanced analysis. There’s the assumption that if you are critical of the current situation, current lack of policy … These are from the beltway or just simply the general state of Black America, that you are in some ways engaged in a criticism of Obama’s failings. Part of what we have to do, given Republican recalcitrance, given the fact that racism is still alive and well, is somehow circle the wagons around him.
Everything becomes … the gravitational pull of Obama is such, that everything becomes about him, even when we’re talking about devastation in the jobs market, even when we’re talking about the criminal justice system and rates of incarceration, or what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. We just started going through the data, and seeing all the hell that black people are catching. If we call attention to this, then it becomes implicitly or explicitly a criticism of Obama. In some ways it is, but in some ways it has little … It isn’t just simply about this guy.
I’ve said in public before, I can give less than a damn that we have a black President in the White House. I’m really looking for policies that really can address the conditions of the most poor and the most vulnerable. Part of the challenge is then this sense that Black … that the public space in Black America, the deliberative space has contracted precisely because … and here’s the irony, Sam. A kind of identity politics polices what you can say and what you can’t say. That is to say some people, on the one hand, will dismiss identity politics as this bad stuff. You just can’t walk around thinking that black people, because they’re black, should be in solidarity with one another.
At the same time, there’s this implicit identity politics around how we should defend President Obama. In my mind, you can’t defend drones. It’s just hard to do, especially when you were critical during the Bush Administration. You can’t defend NSA. You can’t defend the policies that have defended Wall Street and left Main Street broke. It seems to me that you lose all your moral authority to bring critique to bear on anyone coming after President Obama. For me … and here is really the point that I think you’re reaching for. President Obama has established the way in which future presidents will deal with race for the next generation.
The way black folk have held the state, have engaged the state, up until this moment; it has completely been arrested because people have compromised their principles in defense of this guy. Does that make sense?
Sam: Absolutely. It seems … Obviously, it’s incredibly problematic. It also seems, when you talk about the identity politics, on one hand … because we’re talking about a clash between political cultural aspects of life that are political and policy aspects of life that are political. For instance, in the context of I really believe that one of the best things that has happened to the LGBT community over the past 10, 15 years is the idea of celebrities, of sports figures, coming out … of television shows, even sitcoms portraying gay people as people as opposed to the bud of a joke. That has had great implications in changing our culture, which we are now seeing the payoff in terms of policy.
We are starting to see the expansion of human rights for gay people. This seems to be the tension that exists with President Obama because clearly there is an importance to the notion of an African American being President, and just as there will, hopefully in the future, to a woman being President. That does not necessarily mean that from a policy standpoint we’ve caught up. In some ways, it cuts against any progress on a policy level because it almost gets a pass, like this is enough of the cultural … from a cultural perspective, things have progressed. When the cultural perspective progresses and we don’t see it reflected in policy, it begins to undercut the impetus for policy.
Eddie: Right, so it’s one thing for the President to sing Al Green, to sing an Al Green song in Harlem. It’s another thing for us to get some specific policies to address the conditions of folks on the ground. We know the crack cocaine disparity that has led to the imprisonment of thousands of black folk. You see those folks recognizing that there was discrimination, there was biased inherent in crack cocaine, in powder cocaine, sentencing disparity, but the Justice Department comes through the back door and argues against these folk being released or having their sentences reduced.
You can sing Al Green on the one hand, but what are the policies on the ground? What are the policies on the ground? You can give a great speech about Treyvon Martin could have been your son or it could have been me, but what are the substantive significant policy issues that go beyond just simply private partner, private public partnerships, and entertainers, and preachers, and athletes coming together to do something for black boys? Have we searched our hearts to see if we have given up our prejudices so that we can interact with one … What are the concrete policies to prevent the murder of a child?
When you say when progressives get caught up in symbol, when those … These short hands are troublesome progressive, radical, whatever. When people who are principled get caught up in symbol, we oftentimes find ourselves, Sam, compromising those principles that serve as cornerstones for who we pick ourselves to be. It seems to me that so many folks have to paraphrase the autobiography of [inaudible 00:36:38] colored man. So many people have sold their souls for a mess of pottage. What we see around us is just devastation. Poor people, the most vulnerable, and particularly vulnerable children are catching hell … are catching hell.
Sam: People can look around. We can see what’s going on in Detroit. We can see what’s happening with Rahm Emanuel shutting down 50 schools, and then basically [crosstalk 00:37:04] …
Eddie: Exactly. Philadelphia’s doing the same thing.
Sam: Exactly. We’re seeing this in Philly as well in terms of attacks on public education. Give me your sense. This is a hard question, but on the side from the corrosiveness of people not maintaining their principles through this time, what happens … What are the … because you’re obviously … On a daily basis, you’re engaging in black political thought. When you look at the way that things are organizing, what happens when President Obama is Ex-President Obama? Where … I know this is … because this is something that I try and think about in terms of the … from a political standpoint. I’m curious, from your perspective, what happens at that point? Do suddenly the energy that has been the crosscurrents meld into a more unified current? What happens?
Eddie: Well …
Sam: That might be a big question.
Eddie: All hell’s going to break loose. If we think we’re in bad times now, what the future holds … I was talking with my good friend, Cornell West, and he made a point, and I’ve been struggling with it, that we may be witnessing the end of Black America as we know it.
Sam: What does that mean? What does that …
Eddie: What does that mean is that the traditional ways in which the story, or the stories, of our [soldier 00:39:00] and in this country, the ways in which we stood as the moral voice of the nation in some ways, the way in which we have been in but not of the country and how that status informed our critique, and the way in which we’ve reared our children and our children’s children; all of this is changing as we find ourselves more and more included into the mainstream of American life as it is. Not transformed, but as it is. You have a strata of Black America that is as included and as American as apple pie. It’s not a small strata. There’s a growing number of folks.
At the same time, you have a group of folks who are so locked out, so marginalized, so isolated, living in hyper-concentrated and hyper-segregated pockets of poverty that it becomes difficult for them to imagine the next day, or imagine tomorrow. The way in which the story … The way in which we’ve been socialized into understand who we are as black folk in the United States is changing. What that’s going to look like, particularly post-Obama, in my worse moment, Sam, I say that this administration has had as much of an effect on black politics as the Reagan administration.
It has had that kind of effect on changing the scope and nature of black political redress. We’ve yet to wrap our minds around it. We’re not going to see this impact until the next administration, whether it’s Hillary Clinton, or Cruz, or Rubio, or Biden or whomever. We won’t see its effects until we have to engage the next administration. The question will be how will we engage them? What will be the languages we will use? To answer your question in the short hand, it’s going to get even darker for how we imagine African American politics. My thinking is that we have to shift to the local.
We have to turn our attention away from the national stage as the point of entry, and begin to do what we’re seeing, like in North Carolina with Moral Mondays. We have to begin to see what’s going on in Florida with those young folk. We have to turn to the local. That must be our purge. That’s the best of the organizing tradition as I understand it. Does that make sense?
Sam: I’m wondering if that … I wonder if that also doesn’t … If that story changes, and the way that the relationship that the black folk have to their sense of who they are in America changes, if that doesn’t then maybe leave room for more of that coalition building, like we’re seeing in North Carolina in many respects of economic justice issues. I think one of the things that seems to be happening in North Carolina is that the issues that are on the plate are not … are issues that are affecting poor people, middle-class people, their effect … their economic issues, education issues that speak to black people because of their situation. I think, in the context of voting, it may be a little bit different, frankly, but not as much because they are black.
Eddie: See, the thing is that we need to understand that the best of the Black Freedom Struggle tradition, Sam, was never just simply about black people. The best of the Black Freedom Struggle was about justice. When we think about what the best of the Black Freedom Struggle made possible … we’re not only talking about rights for workers. We’re talking about rights for women. We’re talking about rights for undocumented workers. The best of the Black Freedom Struggle opened doors to LGBT communities. When we’re talking about the voicing of our demands for freedom, our sense of what American democracy ought to be … For me, the best voicing of this is of course in the writing of James Baldwin.
It’s always about a certain kind of reimagining of America. What we see in North Carolina having it’s beginnings in these voter ID laws, these efforts to disenfranchise black folk … or what we saw with Darian Morray with the Million Hoodie March, and how it linked up with the Occupy Movement. When we see these sorts of connections, what we do know is that the best of the Black Freedom Struggle gives voice to a conception of democracy that cuts across race, class, gender, sexual orientation that speaks to the best of us. Part of my worry is that that struggle has been hijacked by self-interested person who are eying getting the better footing among the powers that be.
Sam: Indeed.
Eddie: … and leaving the most vulnerable behind, if that makes sense. I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but I think it’s what I feel in my heart.
Sam: It makes sense. I share that concern. Professor Eddie Glaude from Princeton. Thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate it. Fascinating stuff.
Eddie: It’s always great to talk with you, Sam.

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