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Personal Preface on the Black Revolution of 1963

I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when I was twelve and he was thirty-two, in a house of worship in my hometown. It was April 1961, a month before the freedom rides that desegregated southern bus terminals. Dr. King was spending a few days visiting Williams College, talking with students, in mountainous western Massachusetts. That Sunday evening he was preaching at the tall Gothic chapel up the street from my home. He gave a sermon called “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” As I marched down the aisle to find a seat, I found myself walking right next to the heroic preacher, awash in his brightly colored robes. He looked holy. His chocolate face was glowing.

Two summers later, during what MLK called the “Negro Revolution of 1963,” I took a solo month-long train trip around my country. I had run away from home the summer before, so my parents thought it prudent (Dr. Spock’s permissiveness?) to aid and abet my wanderlust this time. In cosmopolitan Chicago, my first stop, a middle-aged man walking almost on my heels tripped over my feet and fell into the busy street, breaking his glasses.

Despite my earnest apologies, he screamed at me: “I’d expect that from a nigger, but not from a boy like you!” Shaken to my core, I wept back in my YMCA hotel room and nearly took the train home. But I forged on. On my return from the the West Coast, I tested desegregation of Atlanta’s train station, quietly sitting in the “colored” waiting room.

In late August, I rode a chartered bus all night from New England down to the March on Washington. Standing under a shady elm tree by the reflecting pool below the Lincoln Memorial, I encountered King again, this time from a few hundred yards away. His voice boomed into history on that hot afternoon.

A few weeks later, just after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls (three of them fourteen like me), I founded a civil rights committee in my high school, collaborating with students at Williams College.

Inspired by Dr. King and the movement he led, in which I played a tiny role, I gradually committed my life to social justice, peace, and human rights. As a civil rights historian I was privileged to serve as an editor of King’s papers at Stanford University. Learning about his life and leadership and that of his co-workers has transformed my own life and has made me a better citizen, of our nation and of the world.

 

 “We Will Stand Here Till We Die” (Chap. 7) by Stewart Burns

 “Uniting in One Luminous Action All of the Forces Along the Far-flung Front”:
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
August 28, 1963

What the Kennedy administration was conspiring to forestall, Dr. King, his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and tons of grassroots organizers were busily fomenting—a true nationwide mass movement not seen since the labor revolt of the 1930s. But the establishment civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young Jr. and their white liberal allies worried that the civil rights revolution might get out of hand, as Birmingham and its sister protests portended. They felt it must be managed from above.

Shortly after the tumultuous Birmingham spring, multimillionaire philanthropist Stephen Currier funded the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL), a federation of the Big Six civil rights organizations: NAACP, National Urban League, SCLC, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and National Council of Negro Women. James Farmer of CORE discovered that “civil rights generalship was one-fourth leadership, one-fourth showmanship, one-fourth one-upsmanship, and one-fourth partnership.”

Though SNCC director Jim Forman disparaged it as mainly a fundraising gimmick (with SNCC at the short end), CUCRL provided a forum to try to resolve intergroup gripes and to develop broader strategy. Divisions had surfaced about means and even ends. The elite council was often polarized between the bureaucratic inertia of Wilkins and Young and the impatient militancy of Farmer and SNCC’s representative (Forman and SNCC chairman John Lewis took turns). Caught in the middle, King’s thoughtful, low-key presence served as a reconciling force.

To unify both the feuding leaders and the erupting masses, the next step seemed clear—to rev up the march on Washington that black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and activist Bayard Rustin had been planning since March, when neither SCLC nor other civil rights groups had shown much interest. In late 1962 Randolph had proposed commemorating the centennial of emancipation with a mass protest in the capital drawing attention to black unemployment and poverty, issues virtually ignored by the mainstream civil rights movement. His threatened march on Washington by black workers in 1941 had forced President Roosevelt’s executive order banning discrimination in war industry (with help from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt).

When King got on board for the march in May 1963 and dragged Wilkins and Young along, the price of their backing was to downplay economic issues and focus on passage of the civil rights bill that the spectacular Birmingham protests had put on President Kennedy’s front burner. King wanted the protest “to unite in one luminous action all of the forces along the far-flung front,” climaxing the “thundering events of the summer.”

Randolph chose seasoned organizer Bayard Rustin to direct the colossal organizing operation, overriding opposition from Wilkins and others concerned about his leftwing past and homosexuality. Trading on his vast Rolodex of contacts, Rustin rapidly pulled together a supercoalition of interracial civil rights, labor, and religious leaders, though he was unable to swing endorsement by George Meany’s AFL-CIO. When civil rights leaders met with Kennedy at the White House in late June, Randolph stood up to JFK’s efforts to squelch the march because he feared disorder. A month later the President tepidly endorsed it.

On August 28, 1963, a third of a million people arrived in Washington on twenty-two chartered trains, 2,000 charter buses, thousands of car pools, and surged down the National Mall. Moving from the Washington Monument toward the 40 year-old Lincoln Memorial, this was a symbolic march across history from the promises of the American Revolution to the unfinished business of the Civil War.

Fearful federal officials, never before having so many citizens invade their capital, were fully prepared for anticipated disorder, even insurrection: Washington virtually under martial law; five surrounding military bases on full alert; 19,000 heavily armed special forces ready to be airlifted in thirty large helicopters; several hundred inmates freed from D.C. jails to make room for protesters; among swarms of FBI agents circulating in the crowd, one planted just offstage at the Lincoln Memorial ready to pull the plug on any incendiary rhetoric, to be replaced by a vinyl recording of Mahalia Jackson singing a spiritual.

The mass assembly was estimated at about three-quarters black, one-quarter white and Latino. Many poor blacks bussed up from the Deep South. Large contingents represented religious faiths and labor unions. Haunting freedom songs by Odetta, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary welcomed the protesters. On the Lincoln Memorial steps, spirituals by the real Mahalia Jackson and by the great contralto Marian Anderson blended with impassioned speeches by the civil rights generals.

Although several heroic female activists were recognized, not a single woman leader spoke, not even Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women. In fact the civil rights generals’ wives were not permitted to march with their husbands, which infuriated Coretta King among other dedicated spouses. The feminist movement was not quite born.

All the speech texts except King’s were previewed by moderate black leaders and by Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s staff. RFK, labor leader Walter Reuther, and Washington’s Catholic archbishop were troubled by criticism of the proposed civil rights bill by SNCC’s chair John Lewis (now a long-time Atlanta congressman) and by his fierce language. At the eleventh hour, the vast assembly wildly expectant below, Lewis was taken into a small security guard office behind Lincoln and was upbraided by Randolph, NAACP chief Roy Wilkins, Rustin, and MLK (more respectfully) to fall in line. Wilkins was belligerent. But the 23 year-old sit-in leader and freedom rider, who had risked death more than once, had worried like his SNCC colleagues that the White House was coopting and sanitizing the message of the march. He stood his ground with the movement’s elder statesmen two or three times his age. After more than an hour they were still deadlocked, miles and generations apart. Then Randolph, the great rally’s emcee, came back in looking “beaten down,” as if about to cry.

“I have waited twenty-two years for this,” he pleaded with his colleagues. “I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity. Please don’t ruin it.” He turned to Lewis, barely born when Randolph organized the 1941 march on Washington that he called off when FDR succumbed to his demands. “John, we’ve come this far together. Let us stay together.” Out of respect and reverence for Randolph, his longtime hero, he finally agreed to change a few lines.

When his turn came, Lewis pierced the optimistic, feel-good mood with a candid speech that called for a nonviolent revolution. He did not wholly oppose but expressed serious reservations about JFK’s proposed legislation because it neglected police brutality, judicial injustice, and voting rights. He agreed not to ask, “Which side is the federal government on?” but he scolded both parties for resisting change, for their “immoral compromises.”

“By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he concluded, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.

“We must say, Wake up, America. Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”

The crowd roared louder than for any of the prior speakers.

Near the end of the long sun-baked afternoon Randolph introduced King as “the moral leader of our nation.” He stood beneath the brooding stone face of Lincoln, a row of white-capped guards behind him, waiting for the cheers and chants to die down.

“I am happy to join with you today,” the preacher began, “in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” He was still waiting for his “promissory note” of freedom and economic justice to be redeemed, for the check to be cashed.

In this great sermon televised live, King did for the whole nation, indeed the globe, what the best of black preachers had long sought to do for their downcast flocks: to conjure the kingdom of God in their midst. But first he had to lead them out of slavery. He transported his listeners back to the now of 1863 and made them feel the hope of Lincoln’s act of emancipation. Then he carried them a century into the future and made them feel the chains of slavery still suffocating its inheritors. He made slavery palpable in the eternal now. He painted in vivid strokes why “we can never be satisfied” with meager gains that perpetuated psychological enslavement. He showed how the “fierce urgency of now” required an end to gradualism.

Then just as surely as he pitched the present into the past and the past into the present, he flung the past-imbued present into the future—and pulled the future back into the present. He was shape-shifting time.

The sheer power of his entranced audience, and a nudge by Mahalia Jackson, inspired him to let go of his prepared peroration and grasp a phrase he had used before, at a Birmingham mass meeting and recently in a big Detroit rally. The act of drawing his dream out of ether made it more tangible than words typed on paper. He was prophesying of the future, “one day,” but his spoken words spun images that made the invisible world visible, made the Word flesh. If only for an afternoon, he was lifting up Americans from the “warm threshold” on which they stood into the “palace of justice,” the eternal but reachable kingdom where all would break bread together at the table of brotherhood.

Although King made plain that only with faith would they be able to raise themselves into the kingdom of God, he proclaimed that the people he was addressing were living the kingdom on that very day. Below him along the reflecting pool, dipping their feet in water, and under the elms seeking shade, were southerner and Yankee, black and white, Jew and gentile, Catholic and Protestant, women and men, old and young—sitting together, singing together, praying together, standing up for freedom together.

All that was left was for the prophet shaman to call the kingdom into being: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” The future of racial justice had arrived, if fleetingly, on this hot August afternoon. “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

For the first time, writer Michael Eric Dyson has noted, King had shared his rhetorical genius with the world community, weaving his dream metaphor “into the tapestry of the nation’s self-image.” In his great song—that’s truly what it was—he dreamed such that “the blues and the spirituals were reconciled in an exhilarating moment of moral synergy that mirrored the unity he wished on the American people.”

None were more uplifted by the dream and the day’s drama than the thousands of poor black people that SNCC had brought from the Deep South. “It helped them believe that they were not alone,” a SNCC activist remarked, “that there really were people in the nation who cared what happened to them.”

Yet some southern organizers had a hard time sharing De Lawd’s dream. Sitting on the trampled grass, the young black activist Anne Moody of CORE told herself that back in Mississippi, “we never had time to sleep, much less dream.”

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend, wandered back to the National Mall at dusk and felt the holy spirit whistling through the leftover debris.

 

[All sources are cited in “We Will Stand Here Till We Die”]

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