August 26, 2013

In the Reflecting Pool: The March on Washington and the Diminishing Space for Public Protest

Leffler Feet in Reflecting Pool 63 March LOC

Kathleen Johnson reflecting pool 63 AP

Looking at these image from the original March on Washington in ’63, as well as those just below from ’83, what is simultaneously natural and striking is how the people have access to their national grounds.

Freed 83 March Reflecting Pool capitol

Freed March on Washington 83 Magnum

Freed 83 Reflecting Pool Reagan protesters

Refreshing and rejuvenating, baptismal or performative and transgressive, even, it is fitting, dignifying and eloquent that citizens — especially in the context of civil rights — freely access the reflecting pool.

Looking at the photos from this weekend’s 2013 anniversary in contrast, the visual and physical shift in the civic and expressive relationship to democratic space is shocking to me.

Fence around reflecting pool

Richards Reflecting Pool 13

Richards Getty March on DC 13 Still a Man

If the middle photo of this last grouping is a powerful representation of how much public assembly and public expression has been bounded, the last photo is even more concerning.  Yes, the citizens, their signs advocating for greater rights and expanded freedoms, are penned in. But I’m also thinking about the “I am a man” poster. As a key civil rights phrase originating from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and an enduring affirmation,  the word “still” in this context is to strengthen the original phrase and intent, highlighting the continuity of the ideal. In an ironic twist, however — and one that contradicts decades of struggle for advancement — the phrase can be seen to relate to the bounded condition. As in: I am still a man, although here on this Mall in 2013, I am this confined.

(photo 1: Warren K. Leffler. August 28, 1963. Library of Congress. photo 2: AP. caption: Kathleen Johnson of Newark, N.J. gets help from unidentified members of the crowd assembled near the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March On Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Mrs. Johnson fell into the reflecting pool near the memorial while trying to take a photograph of the area. photos 3, 4 & 5: Leonard Freed/Magnum –  Washington, DC. 1983. caption: Twenty years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, marchers from all over the country thronged before the Lincoln Memorial to hear it honored. photo 6: Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images. caption: A fence is built surrounding the reflecting pool on the National Mall in preparation for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington celebrations in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2013. The National Mall will be host to the Action to Realize the Dream March and ‘Jobs, Justice and Freedom’ Rally as well as the Global Freedom Festival on Saturday August 24, 2013. photos 7 & 8: Paul J. Richards /AFP/Getty Images. caption: Thousands of people line the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial while listening to speakers at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech on August 24, 2013, in Washington, DC.)

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Michael Shaw
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