The march goes on

This moment in civil rights history: Reflections from Springfielders on demonstrations in D.C.

click to enlarge The march goes on
Photo courtesy of Kish Broomfield
Kish Broomfield and family at the March on Washington 2020.

Kish Broomfield was watching the memorial service for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who inspired a fresh wave of the Black Lives Matter movement after a cop killed him, when inspiration struck. "In his remarks, Al Sharpton mentioned the March on Washington. And my sisters and I were like, we want to be there," said Broomfield, a Springfield native. "I want to advocate not just for my son or for the men in my family or for my daughters, but for my community, my Springfield community and the African American community at large."

Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist and former presidential candidate among a host of other titles, announced the march during his eulogy for Floyd in early June. During the demonstration in late August, Sharpton was joined by the son and 12-year-old granddaugher of Martin Luther King Jr. and family members of those killed and harmed by police. Like the original March on Washington in 1963, when a young John Lewis said, "We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen," police brutality was a major theme. Lewis, the politician and "Conscience of the Congress" who died earlier this year, was a top civil rights leader starting as a college student. In '63 he called for people to continue peacefully marching and demonstrating in their communities for true freedom. A policeman struck Lewis in the head during the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965 and Lewis suffered a skull fracture.

Like the previous march, which resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were calls for Congress to pass meaningful legislation. Top priorities were the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the George Floyd Policing and Justice Act, measures which would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and change policing norms while establishing a federal database of police misconduct.

"We come like Dr. King came 57 years ago to say we are tired of broken promises," Sharpton told the crowd. Broomfield said she connects with the deep sense of weariness. "It's tiring as a community to keep experiencing these kinds of losses." She wants to be part of the solution.

Broomfield, a state worker who graduated from Southeast High School in 1996 and who has a master's degree from Benedictine University, said her sisters and cousins take a yearly road trip. That had been postponed due to the pandemic. Once they heard about the march in D.C. though, they decided they'd be taking a 2020 trip after all.

It was a long drive through several states but the group made it and went through the process of getting a temperature check to enter the National Mall for the event which drew thousands of people.

The recent police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake was also top-of-mind. Both his father and sister were speakers at the march. Jacob Blake Sr. spoke of disparities in the justice system. "We're tired. I'm tired of ... seeing these young Black and brown people suffer," he said. "We're going to hold court on systematic racism. We're going to have court right now. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!"

Broomfield echoed concerns about people of color being unjustly met with police violence before getting a chance to plead their case. "That's the fear, (that) you don't get to have that due process." She said of the march, "My takeaway is to stay engaged and to stay informed." Broomfield said that extends to keeping track of local issues, such as the actions, or inaction, of the city council. And she wants less division and more empathy: "It is my heart's desire that people will start to see each other as people."

Marching in 1993

Tiffani Saunders was a teenager when she joined her family members for the 30th anniversary March on Washington in 1993. A Maryland resident at the time, she said she was lucky her family was active in matters of social justice and civil rights. "What I was able to do was translate those (historical) black and white images into color, in real time, in the modern era when I was 13." Saunders said that and other activist events her parents took her to were formative experiences. She's now an anthropologist and professor at University of Illinois Springfield where she teaches African American studies.

The most recent march in D.C. is happening as cities around the country continue with demonstrations, as has been the case for months. In cities such as Portland and Chicago, police have attacked and arrested protesters. Conduct of federal agents and police has been unlawful at times, according to civil rights groups such as the ACLU. Demonstration is part of our cultural fabric. "We've seen in the past, action by taking to the streets has led to profound change," said Saunders. The majority of those calling for racial justice out in the streets have not engaged in violent activity. But that doesn't mean everyone is comfortable by their relentless presence in the public eye.

"What we're seeing today is a resurgence of methods that have been proven and demonstrated to lead to results, because they make everyone uncomfortable," said Saunders. "It's when people who are typically comfortable start to feel uncomfortable as well – that's where we start to see some change happening."

Contact Rachel Otwell at [email protected].