THE BLOG
08/27/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

The March on Washington and the Congress of the People: Lessons From Two Movements

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Flying back from South Africa where I spend several months a year, the weekend before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I was struck by similar lessons in the freedom movements of both societies that need recalling. In both countries, the agent of change threatens to shrink like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

In today's usual accounts, movement leaders take on gigantic, even superhuman proportions. Martin Luther King gave a speech and Congress abolished segregation. Nelson Mandela got out of jail and negotiated the end to apartheid. This top-down narrative has counterparts in today's view that government and politicians are the drivers of change. What is lost is a particular kind of citizen politics -- pluralistic and majoritarian, grounding great moral visions in daily, practical realities. This is the politics which fuels real democratic change.

In the early morning hours of August 28th, I heard King in the room next door practice "I Have a Dream." I was stretched out in a sleeping bag on the hotel floor of my father, who had just gone on staff as King's special assistant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC.

King called the nation to "rise up [and] live out the true meaning of its creed" that all are created equal. The speech paralleled South Africa's Freedom Charter eight years before in 1955, which became the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement.

Both statements eloquently channeled civic energy. While working as a field secretary for SCLC, I saw this first hand in the movement's community organizing, nonviolent protests, church rallies, citizenship education classes, songs, sermons and many other expressions, Southern blacks, oppressed for generations, became civic role models for the nation.

In South Africa, the Freedom Charter emerged from a parallel, vast public deliberation, the Congress of the People, which took shape in houses, flats, factories, kraals, on farms and in outdoor rallies. The Congress movement re-imagined the society in radically democratic ways. Thousands of volunteers publicized the C.O.P, educated the people, and got their views on what should be included in the Charter. They created a "million signatures campaign."

Both King's Dream and the Freedom Charter advanced inclusive visions. The Charter begins, "We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." These words insured a nonracial cast to the movement, challenging both the racist apartheid regime and black nationalists who proposed "to drive whites into the sea."

King's speech similarly envisioned that "one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." He also countered divisive politics. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline."

Both movements had profound moral aspects, but it is a mistake to see them as simply moral crusades. They embodied a down-to-earth citizen politics aiming to win over the broad middle of society.

Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, principle tutor of King in nonviolence, posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this month, strongly held this view. It came to trenchant expression in his 1965 essay "From Protest to Politics."

Describing post-segregation problems facing the black community like unemployment, inferior housing and education, crime and despair, Rustin argued that to address these required building a movement with even wider support.

He challenged "moderates" who believed that dismantling legal segregation was the final goal. He also countered "militants," those he called the "no-win" tendency. "These are often described as the radicals of the movement but they are really its moralists," he said. "They seek to change white hearts - by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may applaud Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing."

Neither moderates nor militants would produce much change in Rustin's view. The movement for equality required far ranging reforms if it was to address successfully problems like unemployment, education, poverty in the ghettos and the need to redefine work itself. But detailed programs needed to be owned by the movement.

Citizens' political power was at the heart of Rustin's strategy. Such power could only grow from interracial alliances of blacks with labor unions, churches and synagogues and others. It required a shift in tactics from "direct-action techniques" to "the building of community...power bases." His disagreement with Black Power and other forms of black nationalism was that they alienated needed working class allies.

In recent years, as government moved to the center of the liberal imagination, citizen politics receded. At the 2012 Democratic convention many argued that "government is the one thing we all belong to," as the opening video put it. Rep. Barney Frank proposed that "there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that's called government."

Proposals to mark the March anniversary with a new push for government programs overlook polarizations around government's role, which must be addressed effectively if the middle is to be won over for changes.

In South Africa similar dynamics are at work, but the need for active citizenship is much more widely discussed. Thus, a group of leading figures, the Dinokeng Scenario Team, convened by leaders including Graςa Machel, married to Mandela, former Black Consciousness leader Mamphela Ramphele, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndugane, and Rick Manell, analyzed the state of the nation and proposed alternative possibilities in a recent report, South Africa at a Crossroad.

They describe the shift away from citizens. "Before 1994, citizen activism was strong in South Africa. Today, citizens are largely disengaged and increasingly dependent on the government to provide everything." In response, the group argues that "citizens need to take ownership and ask themselves: What are we doing as citizens to become agents of change... to build the future that we envisioned at the dawn of our democracy?"

The report calls for a new "Citizens Charter" process that in effect re-imagines South Africa again as a land that truly belongs to all, black and white.

The idea is worth considering on this side of the ocean.

Harry C. Boyte is a Visiting Professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa and, in the US, Co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.