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Stewart Burns

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These are powerful days. We are living at a crucial turning point in human history—much like the freedom fighters, the nonviolent warriors of 50 years ago (especially the teenagers and children) who are the subject of my just published book. Will we rise to the challenges of our time?

Foreword to “We Will Stand Here Till We Die”: Freedom Movement Shakes America, Shapes Martin Luther King Jr.

This story of the American freedom struggle of 1963, the great March on Washington, and its aftermath reaches you as we commemorate not only the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, but the golden jubilee of the “Negro Revolution of 1963” (as its leader called it), when millions of marching feet trampled Jim Crow. Like the Civil War legacy, we have much to learn from those “powerful days” that may help us navigate the troubled waters of our own time.

Spring 2013 marks a half century since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was little noted at first, then emerged as the most eloquent defense of nonviolent civil disobedience since Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay opposing slavery before the Civil War. King’s letter was read widely by high school and college students, among many others, over the next decades. As significant as his advocacy of principled nonviolent disruption, when needed, was his assertion in his letter of the Civil Rights Movement’s larger vision: to reveal the deep pull of human interdependence, to repair the brokenness of humankind.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King scribbled in his dark claustrophobic cell. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

As much as the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement anchors our current strivings for human rights and social justice. Its powerful words and deeds have inspired brave strides toward freedom in many other countries as well.

The American movement in mass form began in the 1950s, though many of its originators started organizing in the 1940s or even during the Great Depression. The first sustained mass protest in the South erupted in Montgomery, the Alabama capital, where African-American women fed up with abuse on segregated city buses refused to give up their seats to white passengers and then, in an organized boycott backed by black clergy, refused to ride for a year, leading to the Supreme Court ban on bus segregation.

After a few years of drift, the startling new movement rose to floodtide in the 1960s with sit-ins and mass marches that produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, then spread to the North where urban battles sorely tested the movement’s nonviolent stance.

The Birmingham campaign of Spring 1963 showed the maturity of the black freedom struggle as it neared its peak. It introduced the strategy of nonviolent urban disruption that MLK and his colleagues hoped would break segregation in the Deep South and outlaw Jim Crow. They accomplished this mission in the halls of Congress one year later. The campaign also presented a model of nonviolent militancy that movement leaders hoped would provide an alternative to armed struggle and urban rioting.

After triumph in Selma two years later led to the Voting Rights Act, a bittersweet success came later in Memphis, where city sanitation workers won their union in 1968 but King lost his life on the cross of economic justice. Mass nonviolent action has changed human history over the past half century in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, China, Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, the United States, and other places on the planet.

Birmingham and the black revolution of 1963 climaxed in the March on Washington where a third of a million protesters of all colors united “in one luminous action all of the forces along the far-flung front,” as MLK depicted it.

But the war was far from won.

                                                                                                     photo by Deborah Schneer

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