WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Janice Spurgin, a rancher from Nebraska, joined hundreds of thousands of abortion opponents this January in the March for Life to the Supreme Court. She found it "an amazing pilgrimage experience," remarkable for a passion exemplified by a Franciscan who walked barefoot.
When she flew home, she found nothing about the march in her local newspaper. She was not surprised. "In Washington, I think people look out the window and think, 'Not another march!'"
March fatigue: so many of them, for so many causes, to so little apparent effect. Is marching on Washington, one of the signal rituals of American popular democracy, out of step?
Everyone knows about the civil rights march 50 years ago this month where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. But who remembers Washington marches for colon cancer screening (2006) or public broadcasting (2012), or against Scientology (2008), genetically engineered food (2011) or African warlord Joseph Kony (2012)?
The Million Man March of 1995 begat the Million Mom, Million Family, Million Worker, Millions More and Million Puppet marches, none of which came close to drawing a million marchers. David Garrow, a King biographer, says the 1963 Washington march "has been debased by repetition."
It has descended to parody. Jon Stewart's 2010 "Rally to Restore Sanity" satirized Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally earlier that year, and Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" was a dig at his colleague Stewart's plea for reason. (They later combined forces.)
As a political historian at George Washington University, Eric Arnesen is predisposed to follow demonstrations in the capital. But, he says, "There are marches I hear about only because of traffic reports. There's so many of them, they don't carry the weight the one in 1963 did."
The Recreational Fishing Alliance's march on Washington last year attracted less than half of the 4,000 to 5,000 who turned out for a similar event two years earlier, when a parade of members of Congress promised to ease federal limits on fishing.
But nothing happened. And last year, the turnout was half as large as 2010.
Jim Hutchinson, director of the alliance, chalks it up to discouragement: "In 2010 some of our people took the day off, spent 24 hours on a bus and stood in the cold. They were told, 'We're going to fix this.' It wasn't fixed."
Marching on Washington hasn't brought gun control or changed immigration policy or moved the abortion debate out of the trench it's been stuck in for decades. It did not end the war in Iraq; President George W. Bush said being influenced by street protests would be like making policy "based upon a focus group."
Some activists have gone elsewhere. Occupy Wall Streeters set up encampments around the nation. The Tea Party made its name at town-hall-style meetings in congressional districts. The anti-nuclear and anti-abortion movements have marched most prominently on power plants and Planned Parenthood clinics, respectively.
So why march on Washington? Lucy Barber, a historian who's studied the subject, says that while marches never change federal policy immediately and rarely grab national attention, they energize and unify the marchers themselves. They're more about rallying the faithful than converting the skeptical.
Asked what marchers get out of marching, Jerome Grossman, the Massachusetts businessman who founded the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War movement in 1969, says, "Courage." Crushed together for hours, often in bad weather, they realize they're not alone, and are emboldened to press their cause.
A case in point was a 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon. Some demonstrators, including poet Allen Ginsberg and Yippies movement co-founder Abbie Hoffman, tried unsuccessfully to use meditation and chanting to "levitate" the military headquarters.
Whatever its immediate effect, "the symbolic importance of 'taking over' part of Washington still gets to people," Barber says. Which might explain why the march is sort of like the restaurant in the Yogi Berra joke - so crowded nobody goes there any more.
1963 MARCH SET THE STANDARD
In an era when many indices of democratic activity, have waned, marching on Washington has waxed.
Demonstrations have increased in each of the past three years, according to the U.S. Park Police. The National Park Service gets so many applications for political events on the Mall that it logs them on a giant wall calendar; it issues about 1,600 such permits a year, an average of about four a day.
But historian William Jones says marches today suffer in comparison with the memory of the one against which all others are judged - the 1963 "March for Jobs and Freedom."
That march was attended by 250,000, graced by King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and followed by passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the march's leaders - many of whom owed their reputations to the march - never wanted to have one like it again.
The civil rights bill stuck in Congress before the march was still stuck after it; it was passed only after President Kennedy's assassination in November and his successor's insistence that the act would be a fitting memorial.
Instead of enhancing unity in the civil rights movement, the march exposed and widened divisions. For example, John Lewis, leader of the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (and now a senior Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives) had to change his speech to appease moderates.
Even the march's primary organizer, Bayard Rustin, was disillusioned. He subsequently advocated abandoning such mass actions in favor of partisan electoral politics.
"They all appreciated how the march offered a positive vision of the movement to those on the outside," says Barber, author of Marching on Washington. "But they came to see the effort, without any direct results, as too much." That hasn't stopped others from following in their footsteps. "People want something they think happened in 1963," Barber says, "even though it didn't."
A MARCHING PEOPLE
Americans once assumed the District of Columbia was no place for demonstrations that might cloud leaders' judgment. That ended in the depression year of 1894.
A 40-year-old Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey led hundreds of unemployed men - "Coxey's Army," they were called - to Washington. They camped outside the city and demanded government public works projects that would create jobs.
Coxey called his march "a petition in boots." But it fizzled after he was arrested on trumped up charges, including walking on the Capitol lawn.
Still, he set an example for suffragettes in 1913, the Ku Klux Klan in 1925 and "Bonus Army" marchers in 1932. The latter were World War I vets seeking advance payment of bonuses promised by the government. On President Hoover's order, they were dispersed by troops under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
What is arguably the most successful march on Washington never happened. In 1941, to forestall a protest by black workers (organized by Philip Randolph), President Franklin Roosevelt banned racial discrimination in defense industry hiring.
Since then, marching on Washington has been aided by technological advancements, from the mimeograph to Facebook. King's speech in 1963, for example, was the first of its kind to be televised live by all three national networks, as well as around the world via a new Telstar satellite.
More recently, arena-quality sound systems and video screens have carried the stage program to those even a half-mile away. And social media make it easier to recruit participants.
In 1944, a 90-year-old man stood on the Capitol steps and completed a speech he'd begun 50 years earlier. This was Jacob Coxey, who spoke that day on behalf of "the millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms."
They are buried there still, and so in a few days Americans again will march on Washington - in part to commemorate the great day 50 years ago, in part to present themselves, like Coxey and his marchers, as "petitions in boots."