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History Literally Marches Forward

by on Jan.18, 2012, under India

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At the end of “Walden,” the famous American philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” Thoreau is clearly advocating that we march to the tune we hear, rather than the one dictated. And it is this concept of marching that has been taken up by many of the marginalised who wish to change the tune society is singing.

Women are one sector of society that has always been relatively powerless. The Greek poet, Aristophanes, wrote a comedy called Lysistrata about 411 B.C. Here the heroine, Lysistrata, organizes the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until the war ends. The fact that the women in this play are powerless and that it is a comedy sums up women’s position in society even back then. But it was the Roman women, not the Greek women, who first marched in protest in 195 B.C. They were protesting the fact that they could not inherit their husband’s property. The laws on this subject had been going round in circles. First there was a law that allowed them to inherit property. Then there was a new law taking this right away. Finally it was decided to overturn the second law and give the women back their rights to inherit. When the women heard that this might not happen they marched to the Forum and as a result the law not allowing them to keep their inheritances was cancelled. Thus one of the first marches in history was a great success.

Hundreds of years later, women suffragettes marched for their beliefs. But this time it was not about the right to retain your property but about the right to vote, which ultimately means to have a say in the society in which you live. Most suffragettes believed in marching as a peaceful means to attain their goals, however, some suffragettes such as Emily Davison were extreme. Davidson got herself killed in 1913 when she ran in front of the King’s race horse. In the same year in America 5000-8000 women marched past the white house, where some of the onlookers threw insults and other things at them. Needless to say the police turned a blind eye to these assaults. The march to equality for women however did not end there and still continues today as can be seen from the slutwalkers march in June 2011.

Marches have also been used by other underdogs to try and reclaim some autonomy. The subjects of colonial powers throughout the world used marches as a peaceful way to try and get their freedom. In India, Gandhi perfected this mode of protest. His ultimate march was 240 miles from Sabarmati to Dandi. This coastal march was done to protest the Salt Tax that Indians had to pay the British rulers. The British were the only ones who could sell salt and so Gandhi marched to the sea in order to get salt from there. The peaceful marchers, as is often the case, found themselves the victim of violence and many were put in prison. Gandhi was one of those incarcerated. However, the march achieved its aim since it had a significant impact on public opinion and was instrumental in bringing about the British rule in India.

The American Civil Rights Movement took a leaf from both the suffragette movement and Gandhi. Blacks in America marched for the right to vote. But even after the Civil Rights Act giving Blacks the right to vote was passed in 1964, there was resistance in Alabama to it becoming a reality. As a result, there were three marches in 1965. The first march became known as “Bloody Sunday” because 600 of those marching were beaten up by the police. As a result even more people attended the second march. The marchers in the third march were protected by 2000 soldiers and they eventually arrived in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. These three marches were a turning point and afterwards there was further legislation and a wider acceptance of the rights of Blacks to vote.

Marching is still a common form of protest. In 2010 Marchers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) marched to bring attention to the plight of farm workers in Florida. They compared their working conditions to that of slavery. These conditions are possible because many of the farmworkers are illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala or Haiti and thus are not protected by civil rights. The farmworkers are taking a leaf from history and hoping to change the situation. Consequently, they organized a three day march between April 16-18 2010; but only time will tell how successful their campaign will be.

Not all marches are positive. Towards the end of World War 2 prisoners were taken from camps and marched hundreds of miles. These were not marches of protest but death marches. But even a death march can become a form of victory. “The Long March” when the Chinese communists retreated, became a mark of triumph for Mao Zedong and consolidated his leadership, but it was also a tragedy in that so many people died along the way. But on the whole marches tend to have a positive outcome. There is a site on Google with the top ten protest marches in history. Some of the marches shown were not successful in the short term, but in the long term, they had a significant effect and were part of the reason that change occurred.

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