Pink balloons carried by many GLBT participants were one of the most festive touches of the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 23. Another was the lavender blouse and jacket, perhaps symbolically chosen, worn by Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil-rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But the crowd was sparse and the speeches often were tepid.
The original March had packed the area with 250,000 people, and millions more sat glued to network television coverage because, as comedian-activist Dick Gregory recalled, 'They thought it was going to be a bloodbath.' Tensions ran high, the National Guard was on alert and local liquor sales had been banned the night before in Washington.
What they saw instead of blood was the eloquence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 'I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.''
This year, 'about a thousand people' rallied at that location, according to the conservative Washington Times. Other news accounts were a bit more generous but even rally organizers claimed no more than 15,000 participants.
Some critics said it was because most Americans felt little urgency in today's struggles, while others blamed the organizers for a poor job. Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a civil-rights veteran involved in the process, said the event was intended more as a kick off for a 15-month voter registration drive.
What was new was the increased participation by gays, Arab Americans, and others who were not at the core of the original march. 'We have been welcomed with full and open arms as full and complete partners in the civil-rights struggle,' said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF).
At least three openly gay or lesbian people spoke at the event, Foreman, Mandy Carter with Southerners on New Ground (SONG), and Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.
Family Research Council spokesman Peter Sprigg denounced 'the hijacking of the civil-rights movement by homosexual activists.' But none of the socially conservative groups offered a positive mention or support of the march, only the denunciation of gays.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi chose a celebratory approach for her remarks at the podium. She emphasized 'a commitment to justice—the belief 'that liberty and justice for all' is not just a pledge, but also a fundamental principle that guides us as a people.'
There was no mention of the words gay, or Hispanic, or even Black or African American in her speech.
In 1963, many states still had laws on the books that outlawed interracial marriage, and often they were enforced. It was not until 1967, in the appropriately named Loving v. Virginia, that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the remaining 16 of those states.
One of the first big events calling for marriage rights for gays took place at this same spot during the 1993 gay march on Washington. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) organized 'The Wedding' at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and drew a large an enthusiastic crowd.
Marriage has dominated mainstream media coverage of the gay community for the last several months. But it was studiously avoided at this march.
In an Aug. 21 online forum sponsored by the Washington Post, Martin Luther King III dodged the issue. He said, 'I don't know if I have an opinion on gay marriage yet because I don't think there is a universal opinion, even in the gay community, on the subject. I do work with leaders in the gay and lesbian community and some of them have not formed an opinion on the issue of marriage. Until I clearly understand what the gay and lesbian community wants to have, I don't think I would want to articulate any view at this point.'
The NGLTF's Foreman continued the charade. Just a few months earlier, at a forum on 'the gay agenda,' he had called the far right's push for a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, 'a blazing inferno' that threatens to race through Congress.
Yet, gazing out from the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with The Capitol Building at the center of his panoramic view of Washington, Foreman did not even allude to the issue of marriage in his speech.