THE BLOG
08/14/2013 12:06 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

The Civil Rights Movement: Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago I was a young student involved in "The Movement." In fact, I was involved in the Anti-War Movement, the Anti-Poverty Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. I marched in the famous March on Washington that helped to catapult the Civil Rights Movement front and center in the consciousness of America. Hundreds more marches followed in Washington D.C. and across the country. A few years later, there was fundamental federal civil rights legislation that gradually broke down the vicious and unjust system of segregation that had enslaved millions of our brothers and sisters for hundreds of years. Coinciding with these citizen-led movements was the federal government's War on Poverty that President Lyndon Johnson launched around the same time. The rate of poverty in our country was cut in half in ten years.

It is hard to determine just how much the millions of marchers and protesters influenced these two monumental changes, but I suspect they had a profound effect on both the advancement of civil rights and the end of the war. One of the lessons I have learned from so long ago is that much of the success of those various movements lies in the fact that they worked together, not in complete harmony, but significantly enough to form some solidarity. People learned to agree on substantive issues and worked towards a common cause even when they may have had serious disagreements about strategy and policies. It was a Movement of Movements.

In 1973, several years after this pinnacle of movements, I met a fellow activist/dreamer named Harry Chapin who was also a rising successful singer-songwriter. We set out to create a new movement to end hunger building upon the work of thousands of grassroots hunger and poverty organizations and several national hunger advocacy organizations. We formed a grassroots support organization that we called World Hunger Year and is now known as WhyHunger. Over the years we have also worked on Farm Bills, advocacy for poverty legislation and supported a whole host of new creations like farmers markets, community supported agriculture, community gardens, farm to school programs and youth markets. We understood from the beginning that ending hunger would require understanding the root causes which, in turn, would require working across many different sectors.

For instance, we work with our colleagues in public health. We have learned more about nutrition and the need for a better quality of food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, the t essential connection to hunger and poverty. That is true for everyone but most important for poor people who have the highest levels of obesity and diabetes.

We also work with small and medium size farmers who are speaking up and organizing about the inequalities of federal agricultural subsidies and other farm policies as well as the power of Big Food and Big Ag. They often stand with folks in the environmental movement who, for decades, have been decrying the disastrous effects of our food and agriculture policies on our land, air and water resources.

We work with our colleagues in labor. Millions of farm and food workers bring the food to harvest and to our plates but are the most underpaid and exploited workers in our society. They are the victims of billions of dollars in wage theft, sexual harassment and are often forced to work in dangerous conditions without sick time or health insurance. More and more of the food workers and the general public who are outraged by the health concerns associated with how food is grown, processed and served are also speaking out.

All of these folks and more are part of a new version of "The Movement" that can be called the Anti- Hunger Movement, the Food Justice Movement, The Food Sovereignty Movement, the Good Food Movement and the Environmental Movement. All of these "movements" are in play here in the U.S. and throughout much of the world. They do not always agree on specific issues, policies, solutions and legislation but more often they do and when they do, they can be a most powerful force for change.

The challenge is for all of us to communicate and work together when we see mutual benefits for our constituencies. We need to agree on a campaign or a series of campaigns AND we need champions in the media, in business, academia and especially, in government.

The game changing accomplishment of "The Movement" almost half a century ago can happen again starting from the grassroots, from the bottom up. It is already happening right now in towns and cities all over the country and around the world. It has new electronic tools for communication and organizing that we never dreamed of back then. The question is can we create the "peaceful outrage" that Doctor Martin Luther King and so many others inspired and translate that outrage into action and "a movement of movements?"

Recently, I was in a picket line with folks from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have led a decade long campaign to improve the working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida. They have convinced almost all of the major fast food companies to comply but so far Wendy's has resisted the request for Fair Food by not signing on to a penny a pound increase for the workers. We were peacefully protesting outside a hotel in New York City that was hosting a meeting of Wendy's shareholders. Suddenly, there was a loud noise coming from the other end of the street and a very large number of people coming our way. Was it a counter demonstration? No! It was a demonstration by local food workers in solidarity with us. I remembered back a half a century to other demonstrations and thought maybe we have the beginning of a new Movement of Movements if we listen to one another and act together.

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