From the first March on Washington to today, images of Black suffering reveal America’s painful truths
New documentary, ‘The March on Washington: Keepers of the Dream’ traces the connections over six decades of protest
She is wearing a belted dress and carefully done hair, falling backward to the sidewalk beneath the hands of three white police officers. It is 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Then we see her lying on her back, pocketbook askew, trapped in a position that connects past and present in one sickening instant:
A cop is pressing his knee down onto the Black woman’s neck.
This is one of the most arresting sequences of the new documentary The March on Washington: Keepers of the Dream, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel and begins streaming Friday on Hulu. Produced in collaboration with The Undefeated, the film explores how violence against Black people, inflicted by police and white vigilantes, fueled both the original civil rights movement and its current revival.
The photos of the woman in 1963 were taken during the famous Birmingham protests, as the battle against Jim Crow segregation gained momentum. Thousands of Black women, men and children repeatedly took to the streets, where they were beaten by police wielding clubs, sprayed with fire hoses and bitten by police dogs. About 2,500 protesters were arrested, including Martin Luther King Jr. and, presumably, the unidentified woman in the photograph with the knee on her neck.
Fifty-seven years later, Black folks still have that knee on our necks – physically, in the killing of George Floyd, and metaphorically, from systemic racism that chokes Black opportunity in education, housing, employment and elsewhere.
The March on Washington documentary connects the 2020 march, led by Rev. Al Sharpton, last summer’s outpouring of activism, which took place despite the risks and restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, and the 1963 March on Washington, when King gave his immortal I Have a Dream speech.
I was a producer of the film, and while working with the director, Marquis Daisy, we were struck by the way past themes of injustice and disenfranchisement are manifested in a new form today. The footage of past lynchings and beatings was hard enough to watch, even before getting to modern videos of Black people such as Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and Philando Castile being accosted or shot to death. At times we questioned whether the total of all these graphic images was too much for viewers to handle, but Daisy came to the conclusion that we could not shy away from them. “That history may be uncomfortable, but we have to recognize it,” he said. “Understanding this history is what has moved America forward, and I hope this film will help continue to push us along that path.”
While the stated purpose of the 1963 March on Washington was “jobs and freedom,” and the major policy goal was to pressure Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson to enact what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, images of Black suffering and death helped create the momentum for the march to happen.
From photos of the gruesomely disfigured face of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy killed for talking to a white woman to television footage of fire hoses turned on peaceful Black protesters in Birmingham, consciences were shocked worldwide. “These very brutal images … made it possible for the movement to go forward,” Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, said in the film. Berry, a former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was speaking of what the world saw in Birmingham, but her statement also applied to the summer of 2020 and video of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Floyd, which inspired another march.
A theme of vigilantism runs against the story of Black progress. There is a through line from the white men who were acquitted of all charges in the killing of Till in 1955 to the white men who shot Arbery and were not charged by local authorities until after a national outcry. For every Black milestone, there is a Black tragedy: Four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing after the 1963 March on Washington; Trayvon Martin gunned down after the election of President Barack Obama.
Decades ago, the Ku Klux Klan seized extralegal authority to keep Black people in what they thought was their place. “It’s much like today,” Berry said in the film, “we talk about the ‘Karens’ who feel called upon when they see some Black person doing some routine thing that they think is out of the way or they shouldn’t be doing it, [and] take it upon themselves to impose a kind of order.”
The film covers the years between 1963 and 2020 by way of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Starting with President Richard Nixon’s policies in the 1970s, then championed by presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, these political strategies created an image of Black men as out-of-control criminals who deserved to be handcuffed, beaten, shot or killed. Is it any wonder, then, what happens to a Rodney King, or an Eric Garner, or a Breonna Taylor?
“The argument and the demand is that there has to be a greater accountability and acknowledgment of Black life,” author Wes Moore says in the film. “Whether we’re talking about the marches of the ’60s, or the marches that are taking place right now, that’s what the marches are about.”
America is a much different place today from when hundreds of thousands marched on Washington in 1963. Our country has been changed for the better by the faith, determination, hope, sacrifice and blood of countless people – and by the power of the images that laid bare all those truths.