March on Washington’s powerful lessons for the environmental movement

As we heard all the speeches at the Aug. 24 anniversary march, at the official observance commemorating the March on Washington 50 years ago, as we hear again, still fresh, the soaring rhetoric and moral outrage of Dr. King’s famous speech (and of the other speeches, not as well known but equally part of the history and impact of that day), we should reflect on many lessons from that struggle. It holds lessons not just for the civil rights struggles of today, but also for the environmental movement.

Like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the environmental movement has both moral and practical aspects. It needs a strategy that unites both inside and outside struggles and goals. It must unite diverse elements around a common program that recognizes that diversity – many kinds of struggles, related but distinct organizations, varied legislative efforts and policy goals, and also educational programs, community organizing, and electoral efforts.

Like the civil rights movement, the struggle for a safe, clean and sustainable environment must be waged on intensely local issues that immediately and directly impact people’s lives, and it must also be waged on the national and international stages. It must involve individual, personal change in emotions, thoughts, and the actions of each of us, one by one, and it must also involve social, legal, and economic changes on the scale of millions and billions of people. It must involve compromise and concessions, and also street militancy and the most outspoken denunciations of the immorality of business as usual.

And one of the lessons of the civil rights movement is that we can’t rely on the political system to somehow automatically self-correct – but we also need the political system to pass the necessary laws and enforce them.

Only a strategy that finds ways to unite these diverse and sometimes seemingly contradictory strands into one mighty movement has any hope of success. The change we need is so fundamental, so complex, and touches on so many areas of life, that any one-track approach is doomed to failure.

Those who seek to pit personal responsibility and personal change against social and legal change, from either direction, fail to see how much effort, how much struggle, how many sacrifices are needed from so many people and on so many fronts.

Scientific research is part of the solution, but insufficient by itself. That has been shown by the experience of those scientists who thought they only needed to explain the problems in order to bring forth the political will to create change. Technology is also part of the solution, but technological innovation must be adopted by millions to have sufficient impact, and it can’t be based on continuing and reinforcing a system that relies on over-exploitation of the earth’s resources.

The success of such a movement, and the strength to create, even impose, that success, requires the understanding and activity of millions of people, some of whom will dedicate their lives, others who will only dedicate their votes. And the movement needs to welcome all levels of change, struggle, and participation.

If we fall into the trap of condemning those who recycle because recycling by itself won’t be enough, we cut ourselves off from millions who want to do the right thing, who are ready to take the first step within their personal control. If we sneer at those who engage in political campaigns since there are inherent limits to what can be accomplished through the political system right now, we cede an entire crucial arena of struggle and lose many opportunities for mass education.

Just as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Equality was the culmination of years of much difficult and dangerous struggle, and led afterwards to more struggle and change, saving our planet will not be a single event or a single kind of change. And just as the civil rights movement needed and won allies in the labor movement as it fought for jobs as well as freedom, today’s environmental movement needs to build those alliances with labor and workers and fight for jobs as part of our struggle for human survival.

Without forcefully placing the moral issues clearly before millions, we will not inspire and involve the youth of today, but if we only rely solely on moral persuasion we will never build the necessary organizational muscle. Convincing people to act, to take on the hard and difficult tasks of struggle and sacrifice requires appealing to their moral sense of right and justice, and survival. But making change actually happen, in society, in production, in transportation, in agriculture, in distribution, in consumption, requires organizing those who are inspired and convinced into effective political and economic campaigns.

We need wild places and polar bears and campaigns to save the bears and preserve the wilderness, but those by themselves won’t save humanity from untold suffering – for that we also need to address the daily living needs of billions of people, for food, for water, for living-wage jobs, for shelter. We need to be part of creating options so that workers don’t have to take jobs in situations where short-term survival needs force them to work against long-term human survival needs.

The enemies of labor rights are the enemies of voting rights are the enemies of women’s rights are the enemies of health care for all are the enemies of immigrant rights are the enemies of environmental laws and regulations. And creating fundamental change requires unity across many kinds of struggle and organization, building bridges of understanding across many issues. It requires street heat and militancy and also requires electing officials who must compromise. It requires unity that is multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, young and old, unity of believers of all kinds with those who are not religious at all.

As for people in other progressive movements and organizations, they need to understand that environmental catastrophe threatens them too, if not today then soon. It might not be a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy, it might be a multi-year drought or a water crisis across many states, or forest fires of extreme intensity. But we are all threatened, and we all need to unite – and the solutions to any limitations of the environmental movement don’t lie in ignoring the real problems facing all humankind.

The lessons of the March on Washington, of the years-long struggles lead by Dr. King, are that successful movements for change require unity, the active participation of millions, building coalitions and unity across many organizational lines, consistency and persistence in the face of determined opposition, and, every once in a while, soaring poetic visions of what must be.

Photo: Zach Frailey CC 2.0



Marc Brodine
Marc Brodine

Marc Brodine is a former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change