The airwaves were abuzz with images and sounds of hope past and present yesterday. August 28, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. In less than a week, we'll also pass the 25th year mark since the Human Rights Now Music Tour. The progress we've made can give us grounds for hope and grounds to carry the struggle onward. There can be little doubt that some of the most intractable barriers to equality in the United States found their watershed moment in the March. Mass action created a tipping point for both the nation and its government that the disparities in civil rights were no longer acceptable in a nation that demanded greater equality. Twenty five years later, we found ourselves inspired to try to humbly follow the lead and inspiration of the March to embark on a tour to raise awareness about human rights abuses globally.
Who was the inspiration? There had been the role of Eleavor Roosevelt in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the words and actions of Dr. King and other speakers at the March, working for Dick Gregory's Run Against Hunger, the ordinary voices of people in Lesotho and South Africa speaking out against apartheid and myriad other injustices, and the important precedent of my earlier work putting together the Conspiracy of Hope Tour in the United States. That last experience took Amnesty International from being relatively unknown and made it a household name in the United States with skyrocketed membership levels. It made me ask: why not try the whole world this time?
Bill Graham got a call to help produce Human Rights Now and thought we should aim for a Nobel level of achievement. Frank Barsolona got Springsteen on board and I'd already secured commitments from Sting and Gabriel. Jackson Browne encouraged Chapman to join us and Youssou n'Dour was invited by Gabriel himself to help us be more fully global. The tour was a symphony of effort. Curt Goring ran the fort. Mary Daly and Charles Fulwood handled press. James Radner dealt with all things administrative. Reebok gave heavy support from the business world. We wanted to do five five continents and on both sides of the iron curtain. Reebok gave a generous advance to begin and committed to more during the tour. Wildly successful, we raised over $23 million with a fantastic lineup of artists and organizers committed to the mission to raise global awareness. The setup was the same. Tracy opened, followed by an artist of whatever country we happened to be in, followed by Youssou, Peter, Sting, and Bruce. We sold every ticket at every venue on a great schedule. We played in London, Paris, Budapest, Turin, Barcelona, San Jose, Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Tokyo, New Delhi, Athens, Harare, Abidjan, Sao Paolo, Mendoza, and Buenos Aires. Each night's opening was the full bill of artists singing Bob Marley's call to "Get Up, Stand Up" as a call to action.
David Hawk was the person who suggested that I think bigger after the success of the Conspiracy of Hope tour earlier. Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Youssou n'Dour came together to commit to my idea. For promotion, we had Bill Graham, Frank Barsolona, George Travis, and Michael Ahern. For limitless tech and logistical support, we had three hundred of the tribe of roadies that are responsible for making shows happen. Two DC-10 aircraft spent six weeks to do twenty concerts. Phil Kent, Dan Adler, John Sykes, and Mike Ovitz helped to get HBO to show us thrice; Time magazine put the tour on the cover, and Peter Jennings granted me an honor that I was humbly thankful for to be designated the Person-of-the-Week on ABC. Jessica Neuwirth and Glenn Metsch-Ampel handled the legal work, Bill Pace and Leno Rose Avila did the amazing advance work. There are too many names to list, though everyone involved deserves credit for the outcomes.
Each concert was a wonder in different ways and is filled with memories. After the killing of Letelier and Moffitt in D.C. in 1976, we wanted to honor the indignities suffered by Chileans so sixty five thousand of them came over the mountains to Mendoza in Argentina. Gorbachev's administration kept us out of Moscow, but Greece filled in with eighty thousand tickets sold in two days. Partners in India tried to commercialize the concert for themselves but we made it happen without the message getting diluted. In Zimbabwe, Springsteen spoke like a giant to the obviously present South African soldiers in the stands during the apartheid years. In Costa Rica we played in hurricane conditions and everyone stayed put to keep their place. In Argentina, Charlie Garcia wanted us to drop a human mannequin out of a helicopter to nod at what the military had done to dissidents over the sea (we passed on that, though I still wonder if we shouldn't have). Budapest was a concert so full that there was no place to stay in the city and we moved on, though we dropped the lights and threw copies of the UDHR into the crowd in spite of the authorities' warnings. In San Francisco, we reshuffled a hotel to avoid crossing a picket line. We had the blessing of the two founders of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson and Sean MacBride for the whole shebang and had endorsements from First Peoples in Canada.
The tour tripled the global membership of Amnesty International. There was massive coverage around the planet. Peter Gabriel, always an ardent champion of human rights and a solid activist for awareness, accepted thanks from the UNHRC in Geneva. There were other stories that were less spectacular. It exposed the limits of any single large organization to handle and empower its leaders without taking exceptional measures (I was 6'4" at the start of the tour and now stand 5'8" so it took a personal toll). Sadly, if unsurprisingly, the White House took no official notice of the tour.
I wanted to have not just Amnesty International strengthened, but for the world to understand that if you are big and strong then even governments can sometimes be made to stop and take notice. The lesson of all of these events is the importance of organizing as an ongoing process. What worked last time might not work the next time. You don't always have to reinvent the wheel, but it's always important to think freshly and in context. Another Roosevelt is credited with the idea to "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." A better lesson might be to "Speak loudly, and organize."
50 years after the March on Washington, 25 years after the Human Rights Now tour, we are still a long way from securing the world's access to and enjoyment of the rights in the UDHR. So what is the next way to raise awareness and create changes in support of human rights? The best way to honor all that have come before, both those who have been deprived of their rights and those who champion them, is to remember the principles of the UDHR globally, to examine conditions locally, to innovate and organize ceaselessly, and to never let the music of hope stop playing.