By Janna M. Hall
On August 28, 1963, around 250,000 people gathered together for the first ever March on Washington, serving as the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital. Organized by a number of civil rights and religious groups, this march for jobs and freedom became the first ever televised political rally and the home to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Since then, prominent political figures have passed on, but that spirit of marching, protesting, and fighting for social and economic justice remains. We’ve welcomed a new generation of leaders who’ve successfully mobilized crowds through social media to put up a unified front through protests and boycotts. We’ve challenged politicians and corporations to change policies and practices that discriminate against people of color. We’ve even developed new policy proposals that seek to dismantle generations of unjust treatment. More recently, we’ve made history yet again with the largest ever post-inauguration march.
On January 21st, just one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, millions of men, women, and children around the world—yes, on all seven continents—gathered together to march for causes that affect all Americans. Women’s reproductive rights, healthcare and immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality, to name a few, served as the focal points of the protests, and the seas of men and women dedicated themselves to stand as an ally for their neighbor. What began as a March on Washington quickly spread from coast to coast, and then continent to continent. Perhaps it was the divisiveness the world heard during the presidential campaign, or the fear that social progress we’ve made in the past eight years was compromised under our new administration that made everyone join together in record numbers. Whatever the cause, the effect was one for the history books. The spirit of our civil rights leaders permeated the crowds that marched for justice and equality.
Glen Allen native Kristin Thomas was one of 500,000 who flooded the streets of Washington, D.C. on January 21st. Being no stranger to marching for causes she believes in, Thomas knew she had to take to the streets to join such a momentous occasion by any means necessary.
“With everything that went on leading up to the election, I knew I had to go out and have my voice heard,” she explains. “A lot of the things our President said during the election process really hurt me, in particular the comments referring to immigrants and Black Lives Matter. I’m really big on standing firm in my beliefs and helping others, so I knew I’d have to go out there whether friends came with me or not.”
Thomas and a friend went out to Washington and spent four hours listening to moving speeches from congresswomen, musicians, political commentators, and other inspirational figures. Having gone to other large events in D.C. before, she wasn’t at all prepared for what she’d encounter while out in the trenches with other passionate men and women.
“I didn’t expect a large crowd,” Thomas says. “I went to the inauguration in 2013, and I did the March on Washington in 2015, and I honestly didn’t think it’d be on that same level. I never expected to see so many men standing in solidarity with women, and it made me feel good.”
That the Women’s March was the largest post-inaugural protest ever is no surprise. Behind those powerful men who have changed and will change this nation, you’ll find a Coretta Scott King, a Betty Shabazz, a Michelle Obama. For centuries, women—particularly women of color—have served as a backbone of sorts in this quest for change.
In fact, 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Though all candidates came with flaws and cause for concern, black women at large understood the threat our democracy faced. It’s that very reason that many women of color met the Women’s March with ambivalence. One large critique was that black women did their part at the polls, and it was now up to the 47% of white women to push for change that the majority of their counterparts apparently didn’t vote for. Thomas admits that many friends didn’t attend for that very reason.
“A lot of my Black female friends feel that we have been unified. We’ve educated ourselves on what’s at stake, and we have become more civically engaged than ever—we protest, hold rallies, we march, and we vote,” Thomas explains. “But it goes both ways. We need white women to not only march for equality and justice when it’s about them, but stand with us as we march, too. We’ve got to stand together on the issues that matter, including race issues. I sure hope to see them at the next Black Lives Matter march.”
More than joining together during marches, we must unite at the polls. In addition to the candidates’ promises for ourpersonal lives with tax and health care issues, we must consider which candidate will better our communities. As educated voters, we have a responsibility to consider the sum of the people who make up this nation, and consider the type of legislation new political leaders want to pass. We have a civic duty to hold our elected officials responsible, and push for equality for those whose struggles we don’t understand. The Women’s March reflected that unity that’s needed to take this nation further: Men stood in solidarity for women’s rights, whites marched on behalf of black lives, and natural born citizens fought for immigrant rights.
Janet Speight, a senior at VCU, attended the march with her boyfriend, Jared Jackson. Gradually understanding their responsibility as young voters, Speight and Jackson first got involved in political marches with Richmond’s Black Lives Matter rallies in 2016. With so much at stake in this last election, they’ve felt growing responsibility to become civically and politically engaged citizens.
“We’re such a social media-heavy generation, so we have a personal responsibility to not only get our news from credible sources, but to also share that news with people on our networks,” Speight explains. “It’s so easy to be biased, so I make sure to get my news from sources that are raw and give strictly facts about what’s happening with our country. Our ancestors fought for our right to an education, and our parents and grandparents endured a lot so that we could have voting rights. It’s our responsibility to be an educated voter.”
While the first March on Washington was in 1963, the fight for equality began generations before and will continue on for generations to come. It’s an honor to exercise our right to vote and protest for causes we believe in. Our duties don’t begin and end at the polls; there are countless ways we can continue to push for change in our communities.
“Call your local representatives!” Thomas urges, “Call their offices to voice your opinion on bills you’re passionate about. Tell them how you’d like them to vote; they listen, and the more we call, the more they’ll begin to represent our interests. Our democracy is being threatened, so let’s use the momentum from the Women’s March and make sure our voices are still heard.”