It was huge. The sea of people, banners, and balloons flowed from the Washington Monument almost to the door of the Capitol. With an estimated 240, 000 protesters, it was the largest demonstration since the Vietnam War era. It may be the biggest crowd -- and maybe the most diverse -- ever to march on Washington.
Civil rights marches had brought thousands of black people and their supporters. War protests had brought young people. But Solidarity Day Sept. 19 brought blacks from South Carolina, white union men in hard hats from Arkansas, middle-aged women in pantsuits, and young couples with children. It brought New Jersey teachers, members of the Actors Guild, and environmentalists from the Clean Air Coalition.
They came peacefully and almost festively to tell the President and Congress that they don't like the direction the their economic policy has taken.
A little girl wearing an American Federation of Teachers hat, carried an "ERA" (Equal Rights Amendment) sign, one of thousands of ERA signs moving in the crowd. Six United Auto Workers carried a mock coffin protesting the Reagan proposal to cut Social Security. Others carried signs touting work safety, opposing aid to El Salvador, and lambasting Secretary of the Interior James Watt. ("Dim James Watt," said one poster.")
A schoolboy wore the message: "Mr. Reagan, thanks for raising the price of my lunch."
"If there is any one issue, it's the threat to economic security," the Rev. Ralph W. Canty, of Florence, S.C. told the Monitor. Rev. Canty is the president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which claims 1.5 million black members. "I think people are just nervous about their future," says Canty. He called the Reagan economic progra "a carefully planned attempt to make the rich richer and put the poor on a lower level than ever."
What seems to rankle Rev. Canty and others are reports of opulent living at the White House, such as $1,000 cowboy boots for the President and expensive new china.
A district union director from Cleveland says his members have been hurt by layoffs, and he blames President Reagan because "he hasn't been able to lower the interest rates."
A US Department of Agriculture worker says she came to demand jobs. "There's no need firing so many federal workers," she says, adding that they will only end up on welfare.
Although it attracted a motley assemblage, the AFL-CIO-sponsored Solidarity Day carried the union label from start to finish. Entertainers sang some oldtime union songs (such as "Solidarity Forever") and new ones made up for the occasion ("The Jellybean Blues"). Many of the marchers carried signs showing sympathy for the air traffic controllers whom Mr. Reagan fired for an illegal strike last month.
"What has he done for labor?" an Indiana man said of the President. But an unemployed construction worker from New York spread part of the blame to the unions for allowing weak and corrupt leaders to stay in power. During boom times members were content to allow their leaders to take care of them, he said. "We need good leaders now," the New Yorker continued. "The members don't exert enough control. We have to show more interest."
As Solidarity Day ended, it proved at least one thing about the unions: they still know how to organize. From start to finish the march was orchestrated with near perfection. Buses and the subway system, which was chartered by the AFL-CIO, moved the thousands with few major hitches. Even as teh rally was concluding on the west side of the Capitol, clean-up crews at the starting point of the march were gathering rubbish around the Washington Monument.
The crowds seemed to drift away as fast as they had come. They left behind a message for a President who spent the weekend at Camp David. They also left evidence that even though only a quarter of adult America bothered to vote in the last election, a lot of people were concerned enough to travel all night on buses to speak out in the nation's capital.