There have been marches that looked like rallies and rallies that looked like marches and demonstrations that were a little bit of both. But when a federal judge ruled this week that antiwar demonstrators could rally in Manhattan on Saturday but not march through the streets, she was drawing a distinction that historians and others say can have great symbolic weight.
In mass protest movements over the last two centuries, the act of marching has carried psychological and emotional power that scholars say stationary forms of protest do not. The simple act of moving forward in a group, made up of diverse contingents, has a visceral force that energizes not only participants but observers.
During the civil rights movement, marching was a specific form of political expression, a statement against segregation, a breaking out into a larger public realm. And it was effective. As historians see it, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, for example, transformed the not yet widely noticed voting rights movement in Selma into a national force.
"Common action does something that common presence does not do," said Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College who specializes in group dynamics. "It produces cohesion and power and maybe a greater sense of universality, that everybody is with us, that whatever it is we're marching for has all the power of all of us behind it."
Because of what the historian Clayborne Carson describes as the tension between the desire of government to contain protests within prescribed limits and the desire of protesters to exceed those limits, some scholars say organizers have often accepted restrictions on their freedom to march in return for permission for large numbers to gather.
Before the 1963 march on Washington, the Kennedy administration worked with the civil rights organizations that had planned the protest to persuade them not to march through the city as they had intended. As a result, the march of 250,000 people was confined largely to the area around the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and is recalled more as a rally.
"They said O.K.: smaller location, less marching, less movement, more massing of people," said Lucy G. Barber, a historian at the California State Archives and author of "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition" (University of California, 2002). "That's one of the things that later marches have often sacrificed: marching in order to have mass."
The antiwar demonstrators, who oppose war against Iraq, had sued the city for refusing to permit more than 100,000 people to march down First Avenue past the United Nations, west on 42nd Street and north to Central Park. The city, saying the march presented safety and security risks, had suggested a rally for 10,000 at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on East 47th Street, with the rest of the crowd overflowing up First Avenue.
The judge, Barbara S. Jones of United States District Court in Manhattan, declined Monday to force the city to let the group march. She said the organizers had given the city insufficient time and information to prepare; and she said the city's concerns about crowd control were heightened by the fact that the country and city are in the second highest level of security alert.
Though the New York Civil Liberties Union appealed on the ground that the protesters' First Amendment rights were being violated, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan upheld Judge Jones's decision yesterday. "The right to use public forums such as streets for speech and assembly is not absolute," according to the ruling by the judges, Jose A. Cabranes, Fred I. Parker and Lewis A. Kaplan.
What gives marching its power is curious and complex. In "Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History," the historian William Hardy McNeill suggests that shared, rhythmic movement has played a profound role in building communities, giving rise to what has been described as a fellow-feeling that seems to facilitate cooperation.
"Every social movement of any importance has had mass marches, not just picnics or gatherings," said Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University who specializes in politics and social movements. "The prohibitionists marched on Washington in 1913, women's suffragists marched on Washington, there have been antiwar marches, there were pro-war marches."
Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers on a 350-mile march from Delano, Calif., to Sacramento in the mid-1960's, bringing the union to national attention. There is a long history of marches in New York, including a silent antilynching march in 1917, marches to demand unemployment relief, a nuclear disarmament march in 1982 that drew as many as 700,000 people and a 1994 march and rally commemorating the Stonewall Inn incident that helped ignite the gay rights movement.
"Usually, you have both a rally and a march," Professor Kazin said. "You show your strength on the street, yell a lot, get people talking about you. Then you gather and listen to speeches. The march is to gather support, show your power, convince people. The rally does that to some degree but is more a pep rally for the people who are already convinced."
For participants, marching brings a greater sense of involvement and contribution than does simply standing around listening. It makes it possible for each passing contingent to express its views. A march can also produce powerful video images.
"Looking back historically, the voting rights movement in Alabama would have been severely retarded if the marchers had been limited to marching within Selma," said Professor Carson, a Stanford historian and editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers. "It was the fact of marching to the seat of government in Montgomery that transformed a relatively small and mostly unnoticed voting rights movement in Selma into a movement of national significance."
David J. Garrow, a civil rights historian at Emory University who lived in Manhattan in the 80's and 90's, suggested in an interview that there was little symbolic power to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.
"It's not at the U.N., it's not by City Hall, it's not Central Park," he said. "There is a tremendous symbolic devaluing in being shunted into this relatively meaningless space."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company