It has been heartening to see the real history of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom emerge in the run up to the 50th anniversary today. It is important that social change agents heed that history, and understand the difference mobilizing people support a cause and organizing people to lead a cause.
Growing up, I understood August 28th, 1963 mainly as the day Dr. Martin Luther King inspired our nation with his transformative "I Have a Dream" speech. For most of my life, I thought it was like a concert: they announced Dr. King would be giving a big speech and two hundred thousand people showed up to hear it. History is often taught as a series of events, and many of us do not learn the true stories of how change happened behind and beyond those events. Unfortunately too many actions today seem more like concerts or events people go to rather than the mass organizing and collective leadership that led to the March on Washington.
The true story of the movement is not just a story of heroes but of countless ordinary people of al ages and stations of life who courageously stepped up, often at great danger to their lives, families, jobs, and property. Many were brutally beaten and killed along the way. And those beaten and jailed like the Freedom Riders came back and marched again and again.
In May of 1963, the media had started writing Dr. King off. He was considered a relic of the '50s and his recent marches in Alabama and Georgia had failed to bring about change. With the movement's future on the line, Dr. King took a radical risk and supported a children's march in Birmingham organized by his deputy James Bevel. On the first day alone, 600 kids were arrested and despite the threat of police dogs, fire hoses, and prison, thousands more marched throughout the next week filling the jails. The courage and leadership of the children aroused the nation's conscience and lifted the movement.
A. Phillip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and dean of the civil rights leaders, had threatened a March on Washington in 1941 until President Roosevelt desegregated the war industries. He and his chief strategist Bayard Rustin had planned a March for Jobs when Dr. King and other civil rights leaders came together on July 2nd to expand the vision of the march to include freedom. Rustin was a controversial choice to lead the march as a gay black man in 1963 America, but he did the seemingly impossible in only seven weeks.
People raised money in their communities to attend and send their family and friends to the march. Many marchers lost jobs or faced other hostilities for their participation. The New York Times marveled at Rustin's operation, and one can see why in the March manual he created. Volunteers organized transportation, housing, sandwiches, water, sanitation, signs, and more for the marchers hoping for an ambitious goal of 100,000 people. 250,000 showed up.
Official Washington was terrified at this large assembly of African American marchers and their allies in spite of their demonstrated non-violent resolve throughout the South's brutal resistance. President Kennedy had tried to block the march, had 19,000 troops on call to intervene if there were riots, and had a staff person able to cut off the sound system if speeches became too incendiary. Hospitals had canceled surgeries to prepare for all the injured. The Washington Senators major league baseball game was canceled for fear of safety. This was the fear prevalent behind the march and "the dream."
There were ten sponsoring organizations including the major civil rights groups, the United Auto Workers, and Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant groups. Dr. King was one of over a dozen speakers that day to reach the podium. No women of prominence spoke, but several were honored including the great student activist and strategist Diane Nash Bevel and Rosa Parks. It is sad that the movement has such a sad blind spot for sexism in its language about full equality. Student leader John Lewis's speech was remarkable as the one most critical of President Kennedy. Dr. King's speech was broadcast to a national audience and truly was a transformative moment for the nation.
It is right today to remember Dr. King's dream, but social change did not happen because leaders like him spoke and people came to listen. Change happened because of the thousands of common people who stepped up, spoke out, marched, and kept at it day after day for weeks, months, even years.
It was not about mobilizing people to hear a leader. It was about organizing people to be leaders. This fact does not diminish the genius, vision, or eloquence of Dr. King. It recognizes instead that his vision would have been empty without the courageous leadership of thousands in communities across the country who stepped up to engage their family, friends, neighbors, and congregants in collective action.
Today many people follow causes. Many causes hold events and invite people to take passive roles in support of change. What we actually need is more leadership - more people stepping up in their neighborhoods, in communities, and on larger causes. The March on Washington was not about a speech. It was about the marchers. It was a celebration of collective action that had been happening in communities across the South and even in the North.