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Thousands Stage Silent March on Capitol : Civil Rights Gathering Protests Recent Supreme Court Decisions

August 27, 1989|JOHN M. BRODER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Thousands of civil rights demonstrators, marching silently to the mournful cadence of muffled drums, converged on the Capitol on Saturday to protest recent Supreme Court decisions that they say reverse decades of legal progress for women and minorities.

The rally, organized by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, was modeled on the rights group's historic "Silent March" of 1917 in New York to protest lynchings, segregation and race riots in the South. That march, led by NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, was the first major protest organized by the civil rights organization, then only 8 years old.

As in the march down New York's 5th Avenue 72 years ago, Saturday's estimated 35,000 protesters were dressed in black and white and observed strict silence along the parade route.

The protest was aimed at four Supreme Court decisions this year that organizers said restricted affirmative action and minority set-aside programs.

'Legal Lynching'

"We come, presenting our bodies in silent protest, in a manner used in 1917 to protest the brutal lynching of black Americans in this nation," NAACP President Benjamin L. Hooks said. "It is ironic that 72 years later, we find ourselves marching once more to protest the legal lynching of black America's hope for a chance to become full partners in the American dream."

Hooks on Saturday estimated the crowd at 135,000, but the U.S. Park Police said 35,000 participated in the march, and the U.S. Capitol Police said 18,500 gathered at the west facade of the Capitol for a post-march rally and speeches.

More than 200 civic, church and labor organizations had joined the NAACP in sponsoring the march. Hooks was flanked on the speaker's dais by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Joseph Lowery, Black Leadership Forum President Dorothy I. Height and dozens of others.

The marchers--the men dressed mainly in black, the women and children in white--did not speak, sing or chant along the route, but carried signs saying: "No retreat on civil rights," "By our silence, ye shall know we are determined" and "What the court has torn asunder, let Congress set straight."

Each of the marchers carried a pamphlet that said: "We march to send a message to all people regardless of race, color, religion, sex or ethnic origin, that we will not and cannot acquiesce quietly as an uncaring Supreme Court majority dismantles court ruling after court ruling and turns its face toward the dark past and away from the present and future."

Supreme Court Decisions

The specific high court decisions that inspired the march are:

--City of Richmond vs. J. A. Croson Co., decided Jan. 23, in which the court declared unconstitutional a Richmond, Va., plan to set aside 30% of city business for minority contractors. The NAACP contends the ruling undermined all minority set-aside and affirmative action programs at the local and state level.

--Ward's Cove vs. Antonio, decided June 5, a job discrimination case that changed a system of proving unfair employment practices. Civil rights groups claim the decision reversed 18 years of precedent and places the entire burden of proof of discrimination on the victim.

--Martin vs. Wilks, decided June 12, a case involving the Birmingham, Ala., fire department in which the court upheld white firefighters' claims that an affirmative action program for blacks may have fostered "reverse discrimination" against whites.

--Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union, decided June 15, in which the court ruled that the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 applied only to the writing of contracts, not the actual performance of the parties under the agreement. The NAACP contends that the ruling had the effect of protecting workers against discrimination in hiring, but not in continuing employment.

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