There is no social-movement tactic so fraught as that of the large-scale march, especially if it is set in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. In Lost in the USA: American Identity from the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March, Deborah Gray White traces the experiences of Americans who participated in large-scale marches in the 1990s, chiefly on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. She looks at the 1997 Stand in the Gap gathering of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical group focused on providing an experience of brotherhood for American men; the 1995 Million Man March, organized in large part by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam but drawing black men from many other faith communities; the 1997 Million Woman March, which drew thousands of black women to Philadelphia for “repentance, restoration, and resurrection” (25); the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation and the 2000 Millennium March (the third and fourth in a series of marches organized by the LGBT community asking for greater civil rights); and the Million Mom March of 2000 of mothers seeking stronger gun control. As the title of her book suggests, White examines these marches as indicators of dislocated identity in postmodern America. She argues that marchers were involved in a “search for order” (15) for lives and communities affected by “the technological and scientific innovations that altered the individuals’ relationship to human life, time, and space; the immigration of new people, languages, and customs; the HIV/AIDS epidemic that by the 1990s had claimed over 40,000 lives; and the transformation of the economy that so changed the nature of work that gender roles and familial relationships were transformed” (17). The marches and the movements behind them helped people who “wanted more control over their lives and wanted to be happier” (21). The events helped participants “get more in touch with their real selves” (29), selves that were at risk given the shifting social circumstances enumerated above. White’s biggest innovation is how she has organized her work around a tactic—the large-scale march—and then used what she calls “close-up view[s]” as opposed to “aerial shot[s]” (159) to understand the events’ various origins, meanings, and effects. The large-scale march is a lens into understanding the very different meanings that each of the marches had for the communities from which they sprang. The Promise Keepers wanted their march to help create a new kind of masculinity, a new patriarch who would be informed by brotherly love and be more emotionally available to his family. The conveners of the Million Man March spoke to black men, calling on a tradition of black self-help to urge men to become more responsible community and family members. The Million Woman March was also rooted in a self-help ethos, and its organizers sought renewed respect for black women who kept families together in racist America. In contrast to the community foci of these groups, the leaders of the LGBT marches of 1993 and 2000 had political “asks”: extensions of civil rights already guaranteed to the straight community. And the Million Moms also had a political “ask”: that of stricter gun control laws. White nonetheless insists that marchers shared a need to “dream differently” (182) about their lives, and that marching helped participants to find a community of dreamers. Anyone who has been involved in a large-scale march knows how thrilling it is to discover the like-minded all around. But while I admire White’s richly textured and well-narrated stories of the marches, I do question whether all the communities covered by the book were equally “lost.” While White acknowledges that some of the marchers had political goals (they directly targeted the state asking for change), she does not really address what having political goals at a march tells us about the community behind it. This problem is clearest when White considers the LGBT community, who organized D.C. marches that took place in 1979 and 1987, as well as in 1993 and 2000. The national struggles to coordinate these marches are well covered in Amin Ghaziani’s 2008 book The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and Gay Marches on Washington. Ghaziani persuasively argues that debates among members of the LGBT community from different parts of the country helped to create organizing structures that tapped local energies as organizers sought to be regionally inclusive; this led to a participatory, democratic culture of planning and a set of traditions on how to organize a large-scale march. This culture was betrayed by the top-down organizing of the 2000 Millennium March as the project of one movement’s organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). White briefly discusses this takeover, but her framework prevents her from understanding it in full. Ghaziani shows that the HRC takeover of the D.C. march made clear how the momentum of the LGBT civil rights movement had shifted to the states, a shift that shows that various LGBT communities were not lost, but finding themselves locally, working “away from a single-issue platform toward coalitions” (Ghaziani, 291). We are likely to see more marches. We are more mobile than ever, and the costs of organizing marches has been lowered by the internet, as evidenced by the January 2017 Women’s March, which drew hundreds of thousands of women to D.C. and led to millions of other women and their allies marching in 673 other cities around the globe. White’s work is a reminder to dig deep into the origins of these events and to think broadly about their effects. As such, it is a welcome addition to the scholarship on social movements and American democratic ideas in action. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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