Today marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As a white kid growing up in Atlanta suburbs and small towns, I first learned about the March in school, through grainy clips of Dr. King proclaiming the “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of thousands before the Lincoln Memorial. It felt almost like a movie: a powerful prologue to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that came after. By now, that’s a familiar editing. It’s the same way I got the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s greatest hits, but not Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy, or the way Rosa Parks’ lifetime of radical organizing for the Black Power movement so often gets reduced to one seat on one bus.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. The 1963 March itself grew out of decades of organizing and a severe lack of national progress on civil rights. It echoed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ threat to march in the 40s to end defense industry segregation, built on the late 50’s Prayer Pilgrimage and Youth Marches to protest inaction after Brown v Board, and drew breath from the countless local marches and acts of resistance that Black women, in particular, had organized across the South and beyond. Talented people disagreed, too: Malcolm X refused to participate, the AFL-CIO declined to join, and John Lewis edited his speech up to the day of to satisfy different factions.
In short, it was messy and hard: one important chapter in a long, still-open story. The famous speeches and protests so many of us half-remember were powerful, but they alone did not ensure the incomplete success that followed. Activists today carry on that legacy in so many ways: disrupting the placement of fossil fuel infrastructure that worsens the climate crisis, ensuring people get access to abortion healthcare they deserve, providing support to their undocumented family and friends, protesting ongoing police violence on Black and trans bodies, and so much more. In other words, fighting for justice long denied “to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” regardless of who these actions make uncomfortable.
Funder ambivalence 60 years ago and today
Some funders embrace these organizers, their dreams and their tactics. The Solutions Project, for example, won a NCRP Impact Award in 2017 in part for their immediate support ofIndigenous communities blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline. Other winners, like the Groundswell Fund and the Four Freedoms Fund, have long supported intersectional, grassroots movements for gender, racial, and migrant justice. They, too, follow and evolve a tradition. In addition to the Black-led mutual aid that sustained the movement’s core, institutional funders like the New World Foundation, Field Foundation, Stern Family Fund, and Taconic Foundation provided flexible support for civil rights organizations in the lead up to the March on Washington, organized other donors to the cause and even helped raise non-c3 dollars.
But then as now, such funders remain relative outliers. Few of the 12,000 foundations present in the 1960s wanted anything to do with groups undertaking massive protests or litigating in the courts. In addition to the obvious white racism that pervaded the ranks of these foundations, even for those who sympathized with the movement’s cause, protest seemed – and was – risky. Civil rights protesters were routinely targeted and killed. Enforcement of the limited civil rights protections on the books was almost non-existent. And despite his sanitized approval rating today, when Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, only 40% of Americans had a favorable opinion of him. That opinion declined to 30% by 1968, after he more publicly embraced labor protests, called for a massive federal aid program for Black people, and denounced the War in Vietnam. Even the Sterns of the Stern Foundation received anonymous threats of violence for their support, though thankfully, and unlike the Black organizers and their comrades on the frontlines facing lifelong injury, unemployment, and death for their activism, no physical harm befell them.
Grassroots movements still struggle to find the resources they deserve. For example, despite a wave of statements and black squares after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the many acts of vigilante and state violence against Black, queer and other communities of color since, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity has found a yawning chasm between the amount of money pledged for racial justice and the actual dollars that made it out the door. Moreover, from the data available, “only 1.3 percent of racial equity funding and 9.1 percent of racial justice funding supports grassroots organizing.” NCRP’s own nonprofit members tell us the same: for organizers of color with small budgets in conservative areas, it can be hard to even get a foundation meeting, let alone a meaningful multi-year grant.
Bold Funders Cede Power
Funders’ skittishness persists at a time when we need philanthropy to be more bold. Since 2017, 20 states have passed laws that criminalize protesting. In 2021 alone, lawmakers in 34 states introduced 81 anti-protest bills, double the amount in any other year.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the institutions that most owe their wealth and existence to the systems we have would be the most reluctant to fund efforts to fundamentally change them. Given the distance between foundation leadership and the communities they serve, why wouldn’t funders misunderstand the obvious frustration boiling over generations of oppression as “disruptive,” or an escalation of tactics after thousands of shut doors as “divisive”? But when this misguided respectability politics dictates the invisible fences of their grantmaking, funders miss out and misfire, just like the funders before them.
To be clear, funder over-excitement can burn, too. Foundations can micromanage strategy, as the Garland Fund did with the NAACP’s choice of campaigns in the 50s. Or they can fall in love with the drama of protest but not the diligence of late-night meetings, community care, and the ups and downs of the struggle. When the headlines and cameras fade, acts of protest look different in different places, and a strong ecosystem of local, grassroots movement groups need funders to stay in solidarity and in their lane long before and after those moments of visibility.
Yet a beautiful opportunity endures: Even if funders don’t cede their wealth and their power to grassroots movements for justice overnight, they can still choose to do something different today than they did yesterday.
The week before I started my first and only foundation job, I picked up my friends from the local county jail. We had been participating in the Moral Monday rallies outside the North Carolina legislature, and my friends had intentionally risked arrest as an act of civil disobedience. I had been worried about getting arrested days before I started a new job, so after marching I did the next best thing: I brought snacks, water and a ride home. But as I waited for them to be processed, I was surprised to find someone I’d only seen on web pages: the foundation’s board chair. In his day job he was a lawyer, and he was there to provide pro bono support to the protesters. That moment told me two things. First, I wasn’t about to get fired. And second, foundation leaders can embrace the nuance and power of protest movements, if they choose.
60 years after the March on Washington, that choice remains.
Ben Barge is NCRP’s Field Director. In this role, Barge strengthens NCRP’s relationships with U.S. social movements and philanthropic organizations to move money and power to community-led advocacy and organizing.
Banner Image Credits: Marion S. Trikosko. Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Additional Image Credits: Ben Barge